Monday, February 7, 2011

Humor in Crisis

One thing I love about JKR's writing is her deft hand with humor.  Even in a serious, high-stakes scene, she's likely to insert some light banter, which helps to bring the action fully alive and reflect the reality of the characters involved.  Take, for example, any scene that Fred or George are in -- as we looked at in an earlier post, Those Tricky Twins and that Peevish Peeves, their role as tricksters is to invert the status quo, to upset the apple cart and make the reader see things from a different perspective.  Their primary tool for handling this is a wicked sense of humor, which crops up at even the most inopportune times.

We see the twins up to their tricks in the delightful scene of "The Seven Potters" in Deathly Hallows, when Harry escapes Privet Drive for the last, and most dangerous, time.  Of the thirteen witches and wizards gathered to escort Harry to safety, led by the uber-serious Mad-Eye Moody, all are somber and focused on the danger they are about to face.  All except Fred and George.

Mad-Eye's plan is for six of Harry's friends (plus Mundungus) to drink Polyjuice and become Harry.  Thus Voldemort and his Death Eaters will not know which Harry to follow as they flee in seven separate directions.  When Harry protests the risk those who will be impersonating him must take, Fred responds:
"Well, none of us really fancy it, Harry," said Fred earnestly.  "Imagine if something went wrong and we were stuck as specky, scrawny gits forever."
When Harry refuses to give-up the hairs they will need for the potion:
   "Well, that's that plan scuppered," said George.  "Obviously there's no chance at all of us getting a bit of your hair unless you cooperate."
   "Yeah, thirteen of us against one bloke who's not allowed to use magic; we've got no chance," said Fred.
Then, once everyone's gulped down their Polyjuice, and Fred and George are transformed into Harry:
"Fred and George turned to each other and said together, "Wow -- we're identical!"
"I dunno, though, I think I'm still better-looking," said Fred, examining his reflection in the kettle.
As Harry watches his six doppelgangers change clothes to match his:
He felt like asking them to show a little more respect for his privacy as they all began stripping off with impunity, clearly much more at ease with displaying his body than they would have been with their own.
Even Fleur gets into the act:
"Bah," said Fleur, checking herself in the microwave door, "Bill, don't look at me -- I'm 'ideous."

And when Bill assures Fleur that she will be riding with him on a Thestral:
 Fleur walked over to stand beside him, giving him a soppy, slavish look that Harry hoped with all his heart would never appear on his face again.
This light-heartedness works well here because even though the group is about to face tremendous danger, they haven't faced it yet.  No one has yet died.  The banter is a way to relieve tension, show the reality of the characters involved, and amuse the reader.  It all comes together for a wonderfully entertaining scene.

JKR always keeps humor flowing through her novels, no matter how dark.  Thus, the absence of it from the most serious, high-stakes scenes make them all that much darker.

Humor is a difficult spell to cast as it performs differently for everyone involved.  Humor is subjective.  But when it works best, it is because the author has been true to her voice, the characters are speaking out of their reality, and the humor bursts forth from intrinsic action of the novel.  In other words, to someone who hasn't read the story, they probably won't get it, because the humor is very much based on the details of your story.  Read the quoted lines above -- if you've never read Harry Potter, you probably won't understand where the humor is in each of those bits.

So, how have you used humor in your stories, especially in a scene of tension or crisis?

Seven Potters image credit 
Harry as Fleur image credit


  1. I always loved this scene! And it was a great movie adaption as well. I definitely try to use a bit of humor in my writing to ease the tension. Such a great move!

  2. Thanks, Sarah! I absolutely LOVED this scene in the movie. It was great seeing this one come to life.

    Also, I added a second image since you commented -- the one of Harry as Fleur in her bra. :-)

  3. So true. I think this kind of humor is extremely hard to do right without diminishing the power of the scene to come. JK is truly a master.

  4. OH YES! I always have humor running through my stories, it's very important to me, no matter how dark it is otherwise. I'm not a big fan of the absolute depressing, straight-laced type books. Though I guess there are exceptions to every rule.

  5. Laura and Lisa, thanks so much for commenting. And I'm with you, Lisa. Too much darkness without any hint of light can be suffocating!

  6. Omigosh, I just started reading the series to my daughter and I'd forgotten how funny Rowling can be! Book 1, chapter 3, I was laughing so hard I could barely read!! Love these books :)

  7. Hi Sherrie, thanks for visiting and commenting! Isn't it great reading Harry Potter to your kids? That's how I got started out with them, reading to my son. Even when he got to where he could read on his own, he still had me read all the book out loud to him. Enjoy!