I read a lot. And by read, I mean I listen to audiobooks. I usually scroll the best sellers list on Amazon and hope something pops up that looks interesting… something that I haven’t read before. Sometimes it’s rough… I read so much, that finding good material is like finding a clean bathroom in a frat house.
The other day I was walking through a Barnes and Noble, and a title that caught my eye in the New Releases section…. WIN, by Harlan Coben. I picked it up and it turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in years. The main reason that this book had me hooked: humor. It was funny.
Not slapstick funny, or even self-deprecating, but sarcasm with just the right amount of ‘bad.’ In other words, I wouldn’t say it was mean-hearted. But WIN (the main character) is an unapologetic rich guy who happens to be good at solving mysteries, and that doesn’t involve doing everything by the book.
After that book, I searched his other books. I was hesitant to delve into others. I liked the Win character, and the other books had a different protagonist, a sports agent. But once I started it, I was glad I did. It had the same humor and Win actually popped in here and there.
So, why does humor work so well – and when doesn’t it work?
In my opinion. Good books need a likable, but flawed protagonist. Writing in first person helps with relatability and so when humor is thrown in it’s like you’re having a chat with a good friend that you haven’t seen in a while.
The trick is what’s the likable part and what’s the flawed part. The guy (or gal) might make you laugh, but he’s arrogant. The difference with this guy is he knows he’s arrogant. He doesn’t apologize for it, but he warns you. He makes no apology for what he does, it’s just how he operates.
The arc appears in other ways. The guy may mistreat women. This is a less forgivable flaw. One he recognizes, and deep down knows he could do better. And then opportunities arise through the story for him to do better. Nobody’s perfect. And so, the relatable deepens, and the reader routes for him (or her).
The humor allows for character and story development. The way the guy thinks and his mannerisms and how he reacts, and, finally, how he verbally communicates, are all clues to who he is (and was in the past), why he does what he does, and how he fits into the puzzle of the story.
Good writing can be like enjoying a great meal. You love the secret sauce on your Big Mac, and love it when the buns are fresh. The pickles some like, but I prefer my meal sans those nasty green things, not funny or likable.