Nervous Laughter—Humor in Thriller Novels

LMAO blocksOne reason thrillers are often compared to roller coaster rides is that a great thriller grabs hold of your heart and mind and rockets you through many emotions at a whiplash-inducing pace. A great thriller hits several emotions at once—excitement, anxiety, anticipation, fear, hope, sadness, and glee, among others.

For me, humor is one emotion that is often excluded, but that can really make a thriller stand out. Even when I’m on the edge of my seat, rapidly turning the pages of a tense thriller, a laugh can be as welcome—sometimes more welcome—than a scare.

Humor comes in many forms, and not all of them are good fits for the thriller genre. For example, satire uses irony and exaggeration to make fun of real-world social or political issues. Parody targets a different fictional work and creates humor for people familiar with that work by imitating and subverting it. Slapstick comedy draws its laughs from exaggerated physical activity, often involving clumsy people getting hurt or embarrassed in ridiculous ways. Surreal humor envisions a world of fantasy, closer to a dream or a nightmare than to the real world. While these forms of humor can be hilarious and entertaining (think Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Weird Al), they don’t tend to work well in the thriller genre because they achieve their effects by breaking the “fourth wall”—in other words, drawing the reader’s attention outside the story and interrupting immersion.

Two types of humor that do work well with the thriller genre are situational humor and character humor. Situational humor finds comedy in situations that arise in everyday life. Sometimes these can be ridiculous (think Seinfeld), but even so, they remain anchored in reality. The reason we find them funny is because we’ve all been there. Situational humor can work in a thriller because, even though the characters are thrust into a funny situation, the reader’s suspension of disbelief is not broken because it is believable that the characters would find themselves in that situation.

Another type of humor that works well in a thriller is character humor. Some people are just naturally funny. Whether because of an off-kilter worldview, a knack for witty one-liners, or humorous habits or traits, these are characters who make us laugh just by being themselves.

As a writer, I enjoy putting character humor into my books. For examples in my work, look at Jack Ackerman in Burnout (a defense attorney who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, views the world through a skewed, humorous lens), Reggie Tuck in Informant (a witty con artist), Toby Novak in Deadly Evidence (a cop with a possibly unhealthy addiction to Facebook), and Noah Snyder in Web of Lies and Deadly Evidence (a bottom-feeding lawyer with a highly questionable moral code). I enjoyed writing these characters, and based on feedback, readers have enjoyed them, too.

Shameless plug: I think Reggie Tuck is my funniest character. If you like humor, action, and suspense, check out Informant!

The right type of humor can bring a lot to a thriller—a moment of relief between tense scenes, an element of unpredictability that can surprise and delight, and/or a closer bond to the characters. Humor also enables the exploration of dark subject matter that might otherwise be so grim that it ceases to be entertaining.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know one of my favorite writers is Stephen King. Among his other gifts, King is a master of situational and character humor. Most of King’s characters are almost instantly lovable—even many of the bad guys—and I believe one reason is King imbues them with a humor that helps make them likeable and relatable.

Do you like to laugh while you read a gripping page-turner, or do you prefer to keep your comedies and your thrillers separate? Is there a thriller you’d recommend that uses humor to great effect? Please let me know in the comments!

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