This week I’m focusing on comedic fantasy, that subgenre that reminds a person that not everything in life is horrible. D.H. Willison, author of several comedic fantasy novels, discusses humor in fantasy.
Hello! I’m D.H. Willison, and I love writing (and reading) humorous fantasy. Why? In contrast to real life, you never have to be funny on cue. Which I rarely am. Also you can edit. A lot.
Something many people may not realize about humorous fantasy is that there are different styles. In the before times, were you ever in a movie theater, broke out laughing, and realized you were the only one? I had a horribly embarrassing situation when I was on a long flight while sitting next to a rather elegant and proper individual. Who was very nice–we had a great conversation. Then as I was watching a film, I broke out laughing. And it was… well… not a particularly sophisticated scene I was laughing at. The individual in question was mortified. But I couldn’t stop laughing. Welcome to my life.
The point is, not everyone finds the same things funny, so as you learn about the various authors who feature comedic/humorous fantasy during this event, keep in mind that even within this admittedly very niche genre, there may be some that work for you, while others do not.
So what’s my style? Extreme and often outlandish situations, coupled with a diverse cast of characters. My world of Arvia is populated by giant mythical monsters, while my human characters are frequently marginally competent at best. Some of the mythic monsters are POV characters with vastly different perspectives and cultures than human norms. So you’ll find a lot of “throwing wildly different characters into a strange scene, and letting the sparks fly.”
Here’s an example. In this scene, Rinloh, a 35’ tall harpy, tries so very hard to make small talk with a pair of human villagers after mistaking their donkey for a light snack.
I see that I managed to surprise the two humans that were with this creature. A female human with long black hair in a single braid down her back, and an off-white cotton dress, has her back against the nearby willow tree, while the male, with light-brown hair and a maroon tunic, is on his back staring up at me. Oops. I might have accidentally knocked him over. But fortunately it looks like I didn’t hurt him.
“Please don’t kill our donkey,” the young male squeaks.
“A donkey? Is that what these things are called? Hmm… OK, but it looks far too large for you to eat. And why do you have it tied to the box? To keep it from getting away?”
“I… no… you see…”
The young male doesn’t seem very coherent, so maybe I’ll talk to the female human. Hmm. This “donkey” shouldn’t be able to get very far tied to the box, as long as I break off these pesky wheels to prevent it from rolling. I put it down, and can chase it again later if need be. I hop closer to the female, to see if she is able to talk any better than that male. Hey! This is the perfect time for me to practice speaking “human.” Darin told me all about the funny human greetings and customs and such. If I do it right, maybe she will be friendly and want to play with me! Let’s see if I can remember. He said it was considered rude to speak to someone if you are too far away. And when introducing yourself, it was best to tell them your name, and something about yourself.
I hop over to the willow tree that the female human has her back against, lean over so that my face is about at her level, and say in my friendliest voice, “Hi, I’m Rinloh, and I’m looking for something to eat.”
She just stares back at me with a strange look of terror in her eyes. Hmm. Maybe I didn’t remember the introduction correctly. Or perhaps I’m not close enough and I’m being rude. I need to think like a human. I had my face at the correct distance if we were both big, so let me lean in farther so that my face is about one of her arm’s lengths away. There, that’s the right distance for a human—she should feel more comfortable now!
She’s still just sitting there shaking and won’t respond. What am I doing wrong? Wait! She’s female. Darin said that human females like it if you compliment them. Maybe she’ll want to be friends with me if I compliment her.
“You look good!” I say, with a wide, friendly grin.
She starts crying. Now I feel bad. It’s hard to believe that Darin would be wrong about human greetings. Maybe they do it differently in this village.
That was just a misunderstanding, but one of the joys for me is if I’m able to blend a subtle social commentary, or get readers to look at things from a different perspective. The thing about fantasy humor is that it’s often not just about the humor. It’s about something else too. And it’s the incorporation of that something else that’s both rewarding and challenging. I often touch on themes of empathy, how people treat others, especially people (or creatures) they consider “lesser beings.”
A lot of things on my world are specifically designed to subvert some of the common fantasy tropes. Arvia is a dangerous world full of strange creatures, gnomes, elves, cat people, talking rodents, and all sorts of mythical creatures that are almost exclusively larger than humans. But many are not mindless beasts–they belong to whole societies of monsters, have their own issues and insecurities. So diplomacy and understanding tend to go a lot further than swords and fireballs. And there the fun begins.
Which brings me to one of the big challenges: striking the right balance between humor, and all of the other things that go into one of my stories. Have I made a scene too outlandish? Diminished the impact of a dramatic moment? But most importantly, are the characters still being themselves: conveying genuine emotions is my highest goal–I need them to feel like living, breathing people (or harpies, or mermen) with unique desires, fears, insecurities. And any humor should enhance this.
So, if I’m not able to be funny on cue, how do I go about it? Sometimes I have an idea for a scene or chapter that’s hilarious on the first draft, but a lot of my ideas trickle in after I let a work stew for a while. I tend to have a long edit cycle, and frequently come up with a new (and amusing) way to look at a particular situation. And finally, I love Easter eggs, references to characters in other media and other fun little details that perhaps not every reader would get at a first glance. Look closely, and you’ll find references to everything from classic mythology, to modern SFF, manga, and games both video and table top. Such as the LOTR quip in the map below (from Hazelhearth Hires Heroes).
Will my humorous fantasies tickle your funny bone? All of my books are heavily character-driven, with witty banter, and quite a bit of adventuring.
Hazelhearth Hires Heroes (hardcover here) is more of a classic tale of adventure with themes of trust, loyalty and found family. What, and for whom would you risk your life? Would they do the same for you? Does it matter?
The Tales of Arvia series (hardcovers here) is more relationship driven, or as one reviewer put it, “a quirky, strange, yet beautiful friendship and the exploration of the way we can be different, and yet still understand and love one another.” There are two books in the series, with a third being drafted.
And if you’re on the fence, why not take a free test drive. The first three chapters (no cliffhangers, promise!) of Love, Death, or Mermaid? are available here. This novella is a shorter adventure, featuring the search for lost pirate treasure, a not-so-little mermaid, and a cute, sweet romance.
Wishing everybody a brighter 2022!
About the author:
D.H. Willison is a reader, writer, game enthusiast and developer, engineer, and history buff. He’s lived or worked in over a dozen countries, learning different cultures, viewpoints, and attitudes, which have influenced his writing, contributing to one of his major themes: alternate and creative conflict resolution. The same situations can be viewed by different cultures quite differently. Sometimes it leads to conflict, sometimes to hilarity. Both make for a great story.
He’s also never missed a chance to visit historic sites, from castle dungeons, to catacombs, to the holds of tall ships, to the tunnels of the Maginot Line. It might be considered research, except for the minor fact that his tales are all set on the whimsical and terrifying world of Arvia. Where giant mythic monsters are often more easily overcome with empathy than explosions.
Subscribe to his newsletter for art, stories, and humorous articles (some of which are actually intended to be humorous).