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Background

When I first tried writing fantasy - a long long time ago - I wrote a book that was meant to be really serious and intense. However, I wrote it in a way where the characters joked around, and had more fun than they should have been having in a really dire situation. The whole thing turned into more of a comedic piece rather than being serious fantasy, and lost the atmosphere.

My new masterpiece trilogy is an epic. I've kept it super serious and to the point, and it's gone really really really really well. I'm infinitely happy. However, upon beginning book two, which I started 4 days ago, I have started slipping back into old habits. The characters keep making jokes, and generally enjoying themselves even despite the fact that their home has just been destroyed. I've gone through and edited some of the the humour out and have kept a bit more of the atmosphere of loss and mourning, but I came up with this question while doing it.

Question

Let's get right to it:

How much humour can you have before you lose the serious, intense atmosphere?

Is it right to include humour when something absolutely grievous is going on in the character's lives?

I feel as if I've got a good grip of it at the minute. I know what is silly and I should edit out, and what I should keep. However, this question does intrigue me!

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Any creature that can foresee its own death must learn to laugh or go mad.

In other words, it is a mistake to think that humor is the opposite of seriousness. Humor is the way humans deal with the essential grimness of our lives and their inevitable ends. A serious work that is lacking humor is in some sense missing this essential component of how humans react in serious situations to keep themselves sane.

The opposite of serious is light. You can be light without being humorous. Lightness is essentially the simple avoidance of the grimness of life. It is a way of dealing with the sadness of things by simply refusing to look at them. It is, in many ways, easier to be light if you avoid humor, because humor is always about the absurd, and human absurdity is in some way always about how we pretend we are not all going to grow old, get sick, and die.

It is also possible to be light in dealing with death. This is what the cosy mystery, the Murder She Wrote kind of show does. They present death merely as a puzzle to be solved, separate from its awfulness, it's heartbreak, and its waste.

Humor can be grim. Much of the best humor is very grim. The key is that when you use humor in a serious story, it be serious humor.

Writing seriously is hard -- mentally and emotionally hard as well as artistically difficult. It is possible that you are catching yourself writing something light because that is easier and less traumatizing. In which case, cutting the jokes is not going to make it serious. You will need to rethink the whole piece in a more serious vein.

It is also possible that you are throwing in light jokes in a serious piece, in which case the fix would be to make the jokes serious rather than light (meaning the the joke accepts and acknowledges the grimness and absurdity of human life rather than avoiding it).

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    We don't have comedic relief without reason. We the reader/observer needs to be cut a break from the intenseness sometimes. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 11 '17 at 1:08
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    Absolutely.It is part of how we handle stress, and therefore part of how characters in a story handle stress. I would suggest that what makes many formula actions stories fall flat is that they lack that humor-as-response-to-stress, without which we do not believe that the characters are feeling that stress. But there is also a specific kind of humor that is apt in these situations. An inappropriate joke falls flat. It makes the tension worse not better. It's a tough thing to get right, both in literature and in life. – user16226 Jan 11 '17 at 3:41
  • This answer was brilliant. I was thinking some things in this answer last night as I thought about this for myself. – Featherball Jan 11 '17 at 5:42

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