The Humanity (and Inhumanity) of Laughter

There’s a memorable passage in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land in which the main character “discovers” that humans don’t laugh at things because they’re funny, but rather because they’re tragic. Every incident of humor he describes occurs at someone’s expense, a recognition of physical or emotional suffering. We laugh, he says, at the “wrongness” of the situation, at the subversion of our expectations and the upending our shared social reality. It is an acknowledgement of our tenuous existence, the realization that, but for a bit of chance, the same misfortune could befall any of us.

Laughter, then, is both an act of “bravery” and a “sharing.” We laugh because to do otherwise would ignore our basic humanity and deny the collective nature of our experience. Heinlein gives “death” as an example of a “wrongness” that affects all human beings. When a character tries to argue death is not funny, the protagonist quickly counters by asking why there are so many jokes about death if that’s true.

It’s been almost twenty years since I read Stranger in a Strange Land, but the novel’s musings on humor made a strong impression on me. I think about the nature of humor quite a bit, actually. We spend a great deal of time asking “why” something is funny, but we often can’t answer that question accurately without also asking “who” finds it funny in the first place. If laughter is a response to “wrongness,” as Heinlein asserts, then someone has to be suffering an indignity or an injustice somewhere along the line.

And that’s where things can take a dark turn. The idea of laughing at “wrongness” is all well and good when we’re talking about universal experiences like death or accidental injury. But what about racism? Or sexism? Or even physical violence? In many of these cases, people are able to erect barriers between their own lives and the “wrongness” inflicted upon others. The danger here is that humor can actually cause us to lose touch with our basic humanity. If we forget “who” we are laughing at or with, we suddenly fail to acknowledge the “wrongness” of the situation, which can be incredibly dangerous for a society.

As an extreme example, think about blackface minstrel shows from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s no question that these performances drew laughs by tapping into the fundamental “wrongness” of society’s deeply ingrained racism, but there’s something profoundly sinister about the fact that the people actually suffering from that injustice remained invisible to the audience. As a result, audiences lost sight of the “who” in the “wrongness” equation, which made it impossible to understand the nature of the “wrongness” in the first place. Deployed in this fashion, humor served to reinforce injustice by obscuring its presence.

Incidentally, this is why well-crafted satire is so powerful. Rather than deflecting the question of “who” has suffered a “wrongness” and why, satire leans into the injustice and dares you to laugh at it if you can. And it’s an uncomfortable laughter, the kind that stirs a wide range of emotions and sparks new lines of thinking. This is the sort of laughter Heinlein meant when he described the response as a “bravery” and a “sharing.”

To my mind, there is nothing more inhuman than the act of denying others their basic humanity, of denying their fundamental right to exist. As a writer, I believe it’s vitally important that we think about how we utilize humor in fiction. Humor allows readers to relate to characters and situations much more readily than inundating them with dry, pontificating exposition (and yes, I’m well aware that this essay might have benefited from a little humor itself!). More importantly, it’s important for writers to understand the “dark side” of humor. There is a tendency to make evil humorless. In some situations, this might be a good choice because it might convey a lack of interest in “wrongness,” which would suggest an indifference to or an acceptance of suffering (such as The Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian). More frightening, however, is the character who uses humor as a means of inflicting or perpetuating injustice without even recognizing the “wrongness” of it (Calvin Candie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Django Unchained, comes to mine here).

Then, of course, there’s somebody like The Joker, who is perhaps more keenly aware of the humorous dimensions of “wrongness” than any character in fiction. But that’s a whole separate essay…

I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Written That Way

Most of us are familiar with the old bit of writing advice that reminds us villains don’t typically think of themselves as villains, but rather as the heroes of their own story. While I think this advice is well intentioned, it often ends up being a bit reductionist. How many times, for instance, have you seen a story in which the villain’s terrible actions are explained by some tragic backstory or extenuating circumstance? It’s a step up from the mustache-twirling villain of old, the guy who simply does evil things because the plot tells him to, but if you’re not careful, this approach can nevertheless churn out some boring and unconvincing villains.

That’s because it still treats characters like “villains” rather than “antagonists.”

A villain is a trope. It’s the bad guy/girl who does bad things because… well, because the author says they have to in order to make the story move forward. Oh sure, maybe they have a plausible motivation for their nefarious behavior, but that’s just a justification to make sure we accept said behavior as believable. Villains are identifiable. We know who they are and what narrative purpose they serve almost immediately. Whatever their goals, they’re ultimately defined by their inherent “villainy.”

An antagonist, however, is a more complex character. Every villain may be an antagonist by the strict definition of the term, but not every antagonist is a villain. Fundamentally, they just want something different than the story’s protagonist, which is what produces and drives conflict. In order to understand the antagonist’s motivations and desires, though, we need to know quite a bit about them as fully realized characters. Whereas villains are defined by their “backstory,” antagonists are defined by their sense of identity, by “who they are” as a person.

Don’t get me wrong, villains can be great. I mean, who doesn’t love Darth Vader, the Joker, or Agent Smith? Fiction is replete with memorable villains, but a well-constructed, believable antagonist can elevate a story to another realm entirely. Take, for example, Jamie Lannister from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When readers first encounter Jamie, he’s clearly a bad guy and seems to fit the profile of a classic villain. Eventually, however, Martin reveals his motivations and internal struggles, which puts his actions into a totally new context. Even his worst transgressions suddenly seem understandable, even excusable, because we see the thought process behind those decisions.

Now, you could argue that this is a veiled “bait and switch”, that Martin tricked readers into thinking Jamie was a villain only to later convince them that they were wrong about him. But that’s not quite right. What Martin really did was give readers a complex antagonist rather than a simplistic villain. Once readers got to know Jamie better and realized why he did the things he did, they both understood his motivations and found him to be a more sympathetic character. A well-conceived antagonist is effective because it creates complications for the reader. While we’re culturally conditioned to relate to the protagonist/hero, a good antagonist forces us to pull back and consider where our real sympathies should lie.

What happens when you get the unsettling impression that character you thought of as the “bad guy” is actually in the right? Or when you find yourself agreeing with a character’s terrible actions because they seem to “make sense” from a certain perspective? Closeted fascists aside, not many people actually think that Darth Vader is in the right, that his iron fisted view of power is good for the people of the galaxy. That’s because he’s just a villain waiting for a hero to defeat him. It’s why the attempts to provide him with a compelling origin story in the Star Wars prequels largely fell flat. Compare that, for example, to an actual fascist, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith from The Man in the High Castle. You could argue that Smith is actually a more reprehensible character than Vader, and yet there are moments when he is an incredibly sympathetic figure precisely because we understand what motivates him to do such terrible things. Although he seems like a typical villain from the onset, each scene does more to reveal his undeniable humanity. He’s not just a bad man in a uniform; he feels genuine, like a living, breathing person capable of experiencing love, fear, and hatred.

A good antagonist forces us to make uncomfortable value judgments, including that most indicting of all literary questions: Would we behave any differently in that character’s shoes? They bring an entirely different dimension to narrative conflict, forcing readers/viewers to ask difficult questions about their own beliefs and values. Villains certainly have their time, place, and uses, but it’s antagonists who really have the ability breath life into conflicts between characters.

So don’t worry if you find yourself sympathizing more and more with that character you thought would make everybody sick to their stomach. Chances are you’re dealing with an antagonist rather than a villain.

You should be so lucky…

Matchmaking That Matters

I’ve got to be honest: romance doesn’t come easy for me. Nothing makes me squirm more than writing an intimate scene between two characters. I found this out the hard way when I took my first stab at writing a book way back in high school (by hand, of course, in one of those little spiral notebooks). You’d think it would have been easy to write a romantic moment between two teenage characters given that I was a teenager myself, but shockingly my relative inexperience with such things proved a liability in fashioning a believable moment. Needless to say, I never finished the book and I haven’t read that scene in at least twenty years, but I’m pretty sure it’s every bit as terrible as I remember.

But that’s not the point. What mattered was that those characters needed to have that moment. It made sense for them to be together at that point in the narrative, so I had to write the damned scene whether I felt comfortable doing it or not. The experience taught me two things. First and foremost, fictional relationships are far more than simple matchmaking exercises in which the main character is assigned a love interest just for the sake of having one. Second, and far more important for my purposes, the relationship doesn’t have to be the central element of the plot for it to have a meaningful impact on the characters.

That second lesson was a big one for me because it helped me to understand how a romantic connection can open up entirely new dimensions to a character’s personality. From a conflict standpoint, intimate relationships provide the author with one more narrative lever to pull, which can help to steer characters in interesting, and often unexpected, directions. Sometimes that conflict can be external, but it’s often even more interesting when it drives internal struggles. I’ve always liked it when characters “surprise” me in the middle of writing a story, disregarding whatever well laid plans I had for them to stride off and do their own thing. In my most recent writing project, many of the characters had to sort out complicated feelings they had for other characters, which ended up dragging the story into a number of places I never would have imagined exploring had they not insisted on leading me there. The end result was totally worth the awkward experience of actually writing those intimate scenes.

Having said all that, few things annoy me more than relationships that don’t make sense from a character or plot standpoint. Sometimes there’s a tendency to simply put characters together because they’re occupying the same space for a long period of time, as if people just naturally fall madly in love with someone because they’ve been around them long enough. Relationships, ultimately, are about feelings, and feelings have consequences. They drive decisions, create tension in unexpected places, and force people to reevaluate long held beliefs. Maybe I’m biased by my discomfort when it comes to depicting emotional intimacy, but I generally don’t force characters into relationships lightly. If I don’t see the purpose of the relationship, then I’m not going to be able to convincingly breathe life into it (unless, of course, there is no meaning to the relationship, which would itself be an interesting source of conflict).

So as tempting as it might be to begin “shipping” all of your characters as soon as you create them, it’s always worthwhile to take a few minutes and consider why you think those relationships need to exist. If they drive conflict or bring a new and exciting dimension to the characters, then matchmake away. But if you’re simply giving the cover artist and the marketing department something to work with, you might want to step back for a moment and place yourself in the characters’ shoes to see if those feelings you’re trying to give them are genuine.

Or better yet, step into their friends’ shoes and give their aimless love life a healthy dose of reality. After all, everybody needs that one friend who’s willing to tell them when they’re wasting their time in a dead-end relationship that does nothing to drive their story forward, fictional characters most of all.

(Yes, I’m looking at you, Katniss Everdeen and Hermione Granger.)

You Can’t Fight Goblins Forever

If you’ve ever played a fantasy themed video game or roleplaying game, you’re probably intimately familiar with goblins. They’re the annoying little bastards ambushing you in dark corridors, poking you with sharpened sticks, or trying to overwhelm you with sheer numbers during the first combat encounter of your first adventure. They don’t look like much, but when you’re a first level wannabe hero armed with a rusty, hand-me-down short sword and nothing but a burlap sweater standing between you and mortal injury, the goblins will probably get the better of you quite often in the early goings of your not-quite-epic campaign.

But if you keep at it long enough, the tables begin to turn. Maybe it was that broadsword you found in the abandoned temple or the chainmail you scavenged off a dead bandit. Or maybe you made a dozen sorties into the first two rooms of the nearest dungeon until you built up enough experience to unlock a new ability. Whatever the case, sooner or later, the same goblins that seemed so deadly when you started on your journey become such pushovers that you forget why you ever feared the scampering buggers in the first place. The goblins know your name now, and your name is their doom.

Which is great if all you want to do is lord your awesome power over menial enemies all day. Sooner or later, though, you’re going to have to venture deeper into the dungeon to face more dangerous adversaries. And when you do, you learn very quickly that the same tactics you used to dispatch hordes of goblins are useless against an orc warband armed with iron weapons and tower shields.

And so you die again. A lot. Until you don’t…

It’s a frustrating process, to be sure, but not one without purpose. In order to experience everything the game has to offer, you’re expected to work for it. The challenge of learning to overcome obstacles is a key factor in expanding your abilities. New enemies force you to utilize your existing talents and skills in ways you hadn’t considered before, and new environments demand that you react quickly to ever-shifting situations if you want to survive.

This system of progression is hardwired into most games. If you want to experience everything the game has to offer, you need to constantly push yourself beyond your comfort zone. The moment you become too comfortable, too afraid to tackle that next big challenge, you run the risk of losing your edge, of losing both the ability and willingness to adapt. Quite simply, you stagnate, stuck running around in circles fighting outclassed goblins and never knowing the exhilarating thrill of facing down that demon-possessed dragon with the threat of the world in the balance.

A bit melodramatic, I know, but what can I say? I am a fantasy author, after all.

To bring this example into the real world, writers face a similar challenge all the time. We grow comfortable doing the things that we’re good at doing, comfortable with sticking to the familiar. While there’s a lot to be said for consistency, there comes a point at which consistency becomes a little too easy to achieve and runs the risk of becoming mindless routine. When we push ourselves to take on new challenges, we often discover things about ourselves that we hadn’t known before, both in success and in failure. Those discoveries open up fresh possibilities and create opportunities for growth, be it artistic, professional, or personal.

Four years ago, after writing and publishing several short stories, I took on the challenge of writing a novel with no assurance I could complete it or that it would ever see publication. The experience not only helped me understand the discipline and focus such a project requires, but also forced me to develop my existing skills as a writer accordingly. I’ve written two novels since completing that first book, and I now feel fairly confident in my ability to take a story idea from a vague concept to a fully fleshed out novel. Last year, in the midst of finishing a book, I decided to take on the new challenge of recording music and releasing it publically. And this year, I’m hoping to try my hand at screenwriting and podcasting.

Will all of these efforts succeed? Probably not. In fact, you could probably argue that many of the things I’ve already tried to take on (writing and editing for roleplaying games comes to mind) haven’t been successful at all. I may have taken on too many things at once, and my writing might suffer as a result. But that’s hardly a disaster. If I do spread myself too thin, I can always scale back. To return to the gaming example, every gamer has made the mistake of wandering a bit too deep into the dungeon and encountering enemies they’re not yet capable of defeating. When that happens, you retreat and go back to what you know you can handle, refining your skills until you’re ready to face that dangerous challenge once again.

But maybe you’re capable of doing more than you know. Maybe you’re up to the challenge that seems overwhelming and you’re letting fear of failure keep you from accomplishing something great that you’ve always wanted to do. You’ll never really know what you’re capable of if you don’t keep probing deeper into that dungeon. The goblins will always be there for you to trounce should you need to withdraw and lick your wounds, but you’ll never know when you’re ready to take on that dragon without taking a few risks.

Ashes to Ashes: Coming to Terms with a World Without David Bowie

I’m typically not the sort of person who gets emotional about celebrity deaths, but David Bowie’s passing earlier this month really shook me. Part of it was the suddenness of the loss; his struggle with cancer wasn’t public knowledge and he’d seemingly roared back to prominence only days earlier with the release of a new album (which is excellent, by the way). But in the days after the news broke, I came to realize that his death would have affected me just as much if I’d known it was coming.

 

I teach a high school elective class entitled “Music and Politics,” so I figured I could get away with spending a day talking about why Bowie was so important to popular culture. The lesson was pretty much a disaster. I spent most of the time simply staring at the class in a stupor, trying to find the right words to convey what Bowie meant to generations of fans and musicians. Eventually, I gave up and we watched the breathtaking music videos for “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” Then I gave the class a list of five Bowie albums they should all listen to sometime in their life and called it a day (in case you’re wondering, the list went as follows: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Young Americans, Low, Scary Monsters…and Super Creeps, and Heathen).

 

Afterwards, of course, I realized why I struggled with the lesson: I wasn’t actually trying to explain why Bowie was important to popular culture, I was trying to understand why he was so important to me. It’s a connection that goes beyond the music. Somewhere along the line, I stopped regarding Bowie simply as a musician who recorded several songs I happened to like. He was an artist, someone who poured everything he had into his craft and wasn’t afraid to take chances when he wanted to do something different. As a writer, I’m fascinated by the creative process behind any form of art. When I was sixteen, I wanted to be Ziggy Stardust performing on stage, but today I’m far more interested in understanding what was going through Bowie’s head when he developed and recorded that album. In a strange sort of way, I feel like becoming a writer helped bring me closer to him because it made me realize just how challenging it is to produce any kind of art. Knowing that he faced and overcame many of the same sort of challenges I encounter every time I sit down at the keyboard went a long way toward humanizing him. I suppose it almost made him seem like a peer, albeit a far more talented and accomplished peer, which made losing him even more painful.

 

In much simpler terms, Bowie inspired me. His greatest gift as an artist was that no matter what he did, there was always something interesting about it. He exuded a sense of confidence that always left me feeling comfortable going along with him on whatever strange new experience he wanted to share with me. I think that’s what I envied most about him, really. Many obituaries talked at length about how Bowie made it “okay” to be different, but he also showed generations of artists how to stake out their own creative identity without fear of how it might be received. While it’s not accurate to say that he never thought about his audience, everything he did started with what he found exciting and with what he wanted to do. Molding that passion into something that appealed to other people as well was just part of his artistic process. If I’ve learned anything from Bowie, it’s that my writing has to interest me first and foremost. Otherwise, how can I expect anyone else to care about it?

 

While I think I have a better understanding now of why Bowie’s death affected me so deeply, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone. His final album, Blackstar, is probably the best epitaph any artist could ask for, but I can’t help but feel like the world was robbed of at least another album or two. It’s a reminder to every artist that life is too precious to waste on projects you don’t care deeply about, that every work you pour your heart into might be your last. David Bowie didn’t have anything left to prove as an artist. If he’d died when he was my age in 1983, he already would have been remembered as a legend. He could have spent the rest of his life touring behind his legacy and made an easy fortune. But he didn’t. He kept working, always looking ahead to the next project, the next idea that caught his interest.

 

For any artist, I can’t imagine anything more inspiring than that.