Here are the guidelines I use when writing humor in my novels:
Is it funny? Will the incident create a reaction in my reader, ranging anywhere from an internal chuckle to an outright guffaw? Humor that fails to do this should be avoided, unless you’re going for the ‘idiot’ label for this character. By the way, you should never have to use other characters to ‘explain’ the joke, although you may want to show their reactions to such behavior.
Will if offend someone? And who? You want to be really careful here, because North America has become a dichotomy between the ‘politically correct’ extremists and people who still have a sense of humor. I have to say it, some people are just begging to be offended. Whether or not you humor them, that’s up to you, and possibly a team of lawyers. Personally, I recommend NOT writing anything that will get you dragged into court. Consider the consequences before putting any of that kind of humor into print.
Obviously, and it should go without saying–although common sense seems not so common these days–you want to avoid anything that can be misconstrued or ‘interepreted’ as offensive. Again, another minefield of potential conflicts and/or lawsuits. Some things will get you rejected by publishers, and rightly so. Hate literature is never funny. Neither is racism nor sexism. Just remember, you want the widest range of readers possible…offending a reader to cater to your own biases is not worth it. If you’re determined to offend a wide range of people, you need to do more reading, and less writing.
Is it easy to understand? If you have an ‘inside joke,’ you’d better have a way to let your readers in on it. I have a rather funny situation developing for one of my characters in the third book of my Martian Symbiont series, that won’t fully come out until the fourth novel gets published. A reader who gets to the fourth book first will probably wonder where it all came from, but the great thing about a series is that you can extend bits of the plot. Most of the humor in my books doesn’t require that much work for the reader, but it’s a good thing to reward loyal readers with something extra.
Is it ‘in character?’ Make sure you’re not telling a joke as the author when the reader is in tune with the character’s thoughts. Most readers don’t even make a mental note of your name as the author unless you’ve become a personal favorite. A reader wants to mentally play with your imaginary friends long before he or she wants to know you. (Don’t take that personally, it’s part of your ‘dues’ as an author.)
Is it mean-spirited, or worse, lame? I was visiting with a friend’s family one time, who thought they were brilliant in their heckling. Unfortunately, that’s what it really was, not humorous at all. They went for the one-liners, and the obvious play-on-words, etc, but there was no fun to it. I’m sorry, I don’t really respond to that kind of stuff. Finally, when they said, “You know it’s all just in fun, right?” I responded with, “Oh, this is mild in comparison to my dad’s family.” It was true, but it also kind of ended the conversation for a while. I think they’ve forgiven me…
Thanks for reading. 🙂
Phyllis K Twombly
‘Putting Fun Into Scifi.’