The Dave Barry Effect

Ever read Dave Barry? He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning humor columnist who used to write for The Miami Herald and he’s hilarious. Seriously, if you’re not familiar with his work go read one of his books like Dave Barry Does Japan or Dave Barry Talks Back. Both of these are great examples of his work and relevant to what I want to talk about because today I want to talk about humor. And he’s gotten a Pulitzer with his humor so he must be good at it, y’know?

I’ve mentioned before that humor is mostly derived from timing and delivery, the biggest exception being humor based on the absurd. And the reason I mentioned Dave Barry is because comedie bizarre is his forte.

Before there was an Internet few writers interacted directly with their audience. But as a weekly humor columnist Dave Barry had a constant and gnawing need for material. At some point, presumably early on in his career, Barry started encouraging his readers to send him any and every weird headline they found in the news. This eventually resulted in his featuring stories like the exploding whale or the air dropped trout. Each and every time Barry would tell his audience about one of these ridiculous events he would assure us, emphatically, that he was not making them up.

Seriously, this was a running gag equaled only by the way Barry would suggest random phrases would make good names for a rock band.

But the point of this post is not to exposit about Barry’s style, it’s to talk about one work of his in particular. In 1999 Dave Barry published Big Trouble, a novel. I won’t go into everything the book is about because it’s got a lot of plot threads juggled in a lot of ways that are really kind of clever and build to a decent climax and a mildly interesting payoff. It’s an okay book, but not a great one. That could be forgiven but, as someone familiar with Barry’s style, I found it had one flaw that was totally unforgivable.

It wasn’t that funny.

Oh, it will make you smile. And you might chuckle at a line or two. But there’s nothing particularly laugh out loud, sticks in your mind for life funny in the book, at least not that I found.

You see, a writer’s ability to use the absurd in fiction is inherently bounded by the fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Just reporting verifiable facts and then commenting on them lets Barry and many modern imitators get away with talking about some really ridiculous stuff, writing fiction demands that the author produce scenarios that sound at least somewhat plausible to the average reader. Big Trouble, unfortunately, crosses the line of plausibility in search of laughs and that kind of undermines the story.

Let me see if I can explain this a little better. You may know about something absolutely crazy that happened to your friend when he was sixteen and on a road trip across the country to visit his grandmother but if you adapt it to be a part of a fictional story you’re telling people will most likely just roll their eyes and wonder how you expected them to believe it. That’s the problem Big Trouble feels like it has.

Or, in other words, Dave Barry’s absurdist humor worked because we knew he wasn’t making it up. When he published a book that went in the fiction section, explicitly telling us he was making it up now, he lost most of the power in one of his greatest humor weapons. Now Barry is still funny and a brilliant satirist. But in both Big Trouble and his second novel, Tricky Business, he tried to turn the satire he lavished on real life into the foundation for a story and it was found somewhat lacking. While it may sound like I’m being harsh with Barry’s books I do want to say that I still enjoy his writing. His first two novels just aren’t the greatest examples of it and I haven’t read any of his later fiction. Maybe one day when I have some more time on my hands.

In conclusion, absurdism may be the best foundation for written humor but it’s not a good foundation for fiction. So what do you do when you want to write humorous fiction?

Well, that’s a question for another time.

Writing Men: Loyalty

Because the examination of well written male characters is a thing.

We’re in the part of this series where we take the broad (very broad) framework of male thought and apply it to how well written male characters act. Sometimes we use well written male characters like Daniel Ocean or Dipper Pines and sometimes we look at broad patterns of behavior which is what we’re going to do this week. As you may have already guessed, this week we’re looking at loyalty.

Loyalty among men is a well known phenomenon, perhaps most commonly associated with the incredibly strong bond men in military units or, in some cases, police and firefighter stations form with one another. The hallmarks of male thought are all over these kinds of bonds: They form around a group of people with a very clear objective, a tendency to revolve around a clear set of rules for behavior and where a great deal of sacrifice is demanded of those who are involved.

The phenomenon of loyalty might be best thought of as an offshoot of compartmentalization. Having spent so much time around each other, sharing goals, axioms and sacrifices, the part of the mind men assign these relationships to grows so large and powerful it overwhelms other compartments and the man simply conforms to the goals and expectations of his loyalties whenever they assert themselves rather than rejecting them in situations where they do not apply. Another way to think of this is a breakdown of compartmentalization and this is where the storytelling aspects of loyalty really shine through.

If you remember back when I talked about compartmentalization I mentioned that men can interconnect things – they just frequently choose not to in order to be fully focused on the task at hand. And I also mentioned that this comes with strengths and weaknesses. My purpose is not to rehash that but rather to point out that the bonds of loyalty are one of the things that forces a man to interconnect situations he might otherwise not.

A perfect example comes from the recent TV series Gotham, when Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred finds one of his old army buddies coming to call. Normally Alfred wouldn’t dream of asking anything of his employer – it’s just not what butlers do – but in this situation he really wants to let his friend stay and Bruce picks up on that, inviting Alfred’s friend to do just that as a result of Bruce’s own loyalty to Alfred. This is a minor example, although it probably wouldn’t feel that way to someone in Alfred’s situation, but we see similar situations in real life all the time.

Men staying at work late at the expense of their families. Men running off from family activities because a friend is in trouble. Ditching work because a trusted friend from an old sports team or college group is in town.  These are the bonds of loyalty, pushing one set of priorities into the space another is supposed to occupy. Like pretty much everything we’ve looked at in this segment, loyalty is both a positive and a negative and can be used by an author to both instigate and settle conflict in convincing ways.

Loyalty’s ability to provoke conflict is pretty well known. We’ve all seen at least one or two cases where a person’s commitments have made unexpected demands on them, growing in ways they never anticipated and left them having to choose  loyalties to uphold and which they need to put aside. These stories emphasize the way loyalty demands sacrifice and commitment, things men prize but don’t always fully think through.

Another aspect of loyalty is how it can be tested. While this could be (and frequently is) done by introducing conflicting loyalties that is by no means the only way to do it. One notable way to test loyalty in narrative is to show someone else suffering a loss due to their loyalty, in the most extreme cases showing a trusted friend of the protagonist dying in service of a cause, and then allow the character to grapple with the insecurities such a thing can cause. Another is to place goals and axioms in conflict – in other words, demand a man do something they think unethical to achieve their ends while his sense of loyalty demands he do both. Both of these are situations rife with conflict that can be used to develop your character into a more relatable, fully bodied individual.

Loyalty is a concept that is out of vogue these days. It’s not only unhip, it’s usually considered kind of silly or outdated. But loyalty is also being created every day in school rooms, on game fields and in workplaces. Men have always and probably will always bond with those who share their goals and work towards them earnestly. If it’s your goal to form realistic and relatable male characters then loyalty better be on the list of issues you’re prepared to address. Doing otherwise is doing your story and characters a disservice.

 

The Reading List (Part One of ???)

A friend of mine (you know who you are) asked me to compile a list of books I’d recommend he read, as he’d never seen me with a book that looked boring. I’ve reviewed my share of books on this blog before but not all the ones I’d recommend reading. And many of the reviews are kind of far back. So I figured why not make a list of all the books/series I recommend reading and give a few sentences detailing why I recommend them. This could easily turn into a many-thousand word post so I’m going to limit myself to five books here and come back to this every so often – no fixed schedule just whenever it hits me. In no particular order here are five titles (most of which are the start of a series) that I’d recommend to someone looking for a good read for a week or weekend, along with a brief summary. If I’ve done a longer review of the book I’ll link to that as well.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld 

Genre(s): Alternate History, Steampunk

Sequels? First in a trilogy

This book kicks of a fun series that perfectly shows how you can use tropes without slipping into cliches. It has both a plucky girl trying to get into a male dominated world and a sheltered young man thrust into the hard world to survive as best he can. It focuses on the beginnings of what we would consider the First World War through the eyes of two characters. One is Aleksander Ferdinand, fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who flees for his own safety after his father’s death evading the steam powered mecha of the Germans who would take him into custody for “safekeeping”. The other is Deryn Sharp, daughter of a British balloonist who dreams of joining the British Air Fleet, which is composed of flying whales.

If you aren’t hooked yet you have no soul.

Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch

Genre(s): Police Procedural, Urban Fantasy

Sequels? Four and counting

One night when London Police Constable Peter Grant is standing guard at a murder scene he’s approached by a witness who claims to have seen the murder. There’s a catch, of course: Peter’s witness is a ghost. With nothing save police training to fall back on Peter takes out his notebook and gets a statement. He just doesn’t know what to do with it.

Following this line of investigation eventually brings Peter to the attention of one Thomas Nightingale, Detective Chief Inspector in charge of The Folly and the Last True Wizard in England. (That last part isn’t an actual job title I just call him that.) Nightingale takes Peter under his wing and starts to teach him magic but Peter will need to learn quick – a string of grizzly murders is leaving mutilated corpses across the city and the killer is clearly using magic to do the deed. With nothing but a ghost and a dog for witnesses the two will have their work cut out for them to say the least.

Railsea, by China Meiville

Genre(s): Steampunk

Sequels? None

Humanity has become a ferromaritime species & the great trains ply the ground between the highlands. From exploratory trains to the great mole hunting engines, commerce & communication & indeed survival depend on the trains. There are relics, invaluable pieces of salvage dug out of the heart of the earth. But most of what was has been is forgotten, entombed with the dreadful man-eating moles & giant ants & humanity now lives on the surface of the planet & the surface only. To go down is to be eaten by the hunters in the deep & to climb up is to die in the poisoned skies.

But there are a few who look up at the clouded skies and the towering heights of the highlands & feel a restless stirring. Surely, they think, there’s something beyond it all. & they provision the train & they light the coal or the diesel & they depart for the farthest corners of the Railsea.

Nightlife, by Rob Thurman

Genre(s): Urban Fantasy

Sequels? Oh, yes

Caliban Leandros is a monster – he’s been told that since the day he was born and his mother named him for the monster in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Only his brother Nico believes he can be anything else and it will take all they can do to prove it because Cal’s relatives on his father’s side have come to call and they’re up to no good.

Call them Elves, Faire Folk, what have you (although they prefer Auphe), they used to be the dominant species on the planet, before humanity crept up and outbred them. Now they plan to get back on top and Cal was an integral piece of the plan. Except the brothers Leandros don’t intend to play along. And maybe, between Nico’s training, Cal’s gloomy disposition and the fast talking charm of the neighborhood used car salesman (seriously) they can dig themselves out of trouble before the nightlife claims them for good…

Hounded, by Kevin Hearne

Genre(s): Urban Fantasy

Sequels? First of the Iron Druid Chronicles

When you’re the last Druid on earth it pays to keep a low profile. This is hard to do in an age when Facebook has replaced magic books and dryads rarely come out of their trees anymore. So Atticus O’Sullivan poses as a peddler of medicinal teas and rare books, never mentioning that one of the rare teas halts aging when mixed with a little magic or that some of the old tomes he keeps in the store can actually teach you magic.

Needless to say the fancy slice-through-anything sword stays in the back room at all times.

And not just because it’s kind of out of place – a being so powerful some considered it a god wants that sword and Atticus is determined to keep it from him. But hey, he’s got a trusty wolfhound pal, an unstoppable sword, death incarnate and, best of all, a law firm staffed by werewolves (and one vampire) on his side. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Hopefully you can find something on this list that appeals to you. Happy reading!

Genrely Speaking: Fractured Fairytales

What’s the big deal? You just take a standard fairy tale and break it, right?

No, not exactly. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this, now would I?

Where the fairy tale is one of the oldest genres of literature in the world the fractured fairy tale is one of the newest, in many respects even newer than science fiction. Like it’s cousin the fairy tale it’s a characteristic genre. In fact, most things about the fractured fairy tale are based on the fairy tale but, at the same time, it’s not a metagenre in anything but the most literal meaning, in that it’s a genre that came after the fairy tale.

The genre was really codified by the segment of the same name on the animated TV show The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. In fact, if you want a perfect example of everything the genre is supposed to be you need look no further than that. But at the same time the genre has the potential to be more as seen by one of it’s classic works, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which is probably the first fractured fairy fale. The typical hallmarks of this genre of literature include:

  1. Application of logic or modern thought to situations that are clearly not modern. This isn’t a fullblown endorsement of anachronism, although it can go that far, but rather a tendency to give characters in classic stories modern viewpoints to point out how silly those situations would appear to modern people who have never encountered a fairy tale before. This can be done for the purposes of deconstruction or just for laughs. Bonus points if there is at least one character who stubbornly clings to the mindsets of the period the story originally came from and points out why all the modern ideas aren’t making sense either.
  2. A stronger emphasis on character. This is the first principle taken so far it becomes a hallmark all its own. Basically, where a fairy tale presents us with a generic protagonist who is a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto a fractured fairy tale stuffs its main characters (and sometimes its entire cast) full of so many quirks it’s hard to believe there could be anyone in the world like them. Which is the point. The general competence of the Yank vs. the shortsightedness of King Arthur in Twain’s tale is a good example of this – although again, Rocky and Bullwinkle are rife with examples as well.
  3. Loads of humor, frequently in the form of satire. Where the normal fairy tale is told for the lesson a fractured fairy tale exists to help us smile at our foibles. Frequently the humor comes from the aforementioned use of modern perspectives in situations where they don’t always fit. See most of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Of course, Rocky and Bullwinkle was frequently lampooning modern political figures and its fractured fairy tales are no exception but they did it in a way that made the fairy tale conventions look silly at the same time they made their target look silly. But the most frequent target for a fractured fairy tale’s humor should be the fairy tale itself, with its characters running a close second.

What are the weaknesses of a fractured fairy tale? Like all genres that put humor front and center, your audience’s sense of humor is going to dictate a lot. Humor is harder to do in text than it is in live mediums or over recordings as a lot of it is timing and reaction, things the audience must provide in their own head in a written format. This is why fractured fairy tales rely so much on pointing out absurdities – the bizarre is one of the few forms of humor free of the confines of timing. But it’s also something of an acquired taste and one not everyone is going to have.

Also there’s the question of familiarity. Fractured fairy tales assume at least a passing knowledge of the source material, usually European folklore although more rarely folklore traditions from elsewhere in the world. No culture’s folklore is without aspects that look odd to the modern eyes but not everyone is familiar with world folklore – some people aren’t even familiar with their local folklore. That can also contribute to fractured fairy tales being a miss, rather than a hit.

What are the strengths of a fractured fairy tale? They say a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and if you’re looking to do satire then the whimsy and general absurdist humor of a fractured fairy tale can really help with that. Once again, look at Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the reasons they got away with the satire in that show is how generally good natured all the humor in the show was. Yes, they were making some political points but not with any ill will at heart.

And when the audience is familiar with the source material it makes for a sort of instant investment for the audience. They know the story already so they’re predisposed to it, whether to like it because it’s a fresh take on a favorite or just looking forward to a good skewering of a story they found weak.

In all the fracture fairy tale is a great kind of yarn, a familiar story skewed just enough to put a smile on our face and make us think. It’s certainly not an easy genre to write in but it sure is a fun one to read or watch when it’s done right.