The Portal series shows us how its done.
There is a commonly held misconception that a serious story needs to be entirely serious. This is strange to me, for many people understand that you can have serious moments in an otherwise silly or humorous story, so why can’t you have humor, even perhaps a lot of humor, in an otherwise serious story?
Take the Portal games, from Valve for example. In both games, the player takes control of a character who finds herself in a strange underground testing facility while the computer AI in charge of the place puts her through various “tests,” each of which gets increasingly more dangerous until eventually the AI outright starts trying to attempt to kill the character, forcing the character to attempt to find ways to either escape the facility, or fight back and destroy the AI first in self defense. While quite different in the details, the idea is not entirely unlike that of the movie Cube. Pretty serious stuff.
And yet, both games are so funny you’ll find yourself laughing out loud as you play them, even as the AIs try to kill you. This in no way detracts from the seriousness of the story though. Never once do you think “Well, the AI is just a yuck-a-minute, maybe I should just relax and be friends with that crazy cat.” The seriousness of your character’s plight is heightened by the use of humor, not detracted from.
Much of the humor is darkly sarcastic, but this is not the extent of it. They also mix in absurdism (in the things that Aperture Labs seems to think are ‘normal’) with sweet, make-you-say-‘awww’ humor (in the juxtaposition between the turrets’ job and their personality).
It is well known that humor (and many other forms of emotion) are easier to convey via live acting than they are in writing. This is why so many arguments spring up over what was supposed to be a ‘funny’ comment on forums or chatrooms online. This in turn gave rise the the emoticon in order to help people on the receiving end understand that the above was ‘said with a smile’ and thus meant to be taken more tongue-in-cheek than a purely dry reading of it might otherwise suggest.
I was reminded of this while watching the new Game of Thrones TV show the other day. There were little bits of humor worked into the show, while I don’t remember ever so much as grinning mildly at the books. And yet it can’t simply be the difference between written word and spoken (with all the inflection and body/facial language inherent there), for David Eddings always managed to work humor into his Belgariad (and subsequent works in the same world) without devolving into purely farcical, a la Robert Asprin’s Myth or Phule’s Company books. For that matter, even in the subgenre of Fantasy-Book-So-Epic-You-Could-Bludgeon-Someone-To-Death-With-It, Steven Erikson manages to pull off a fair bit of humor in his books, especially the later ones. And, of course, Steven Brust and Roger Zelazny are/were the masters of injecting bits of humor into otherwise grim stories in order to make you like characters who really should be, on the surface of things, totally unlikable.
Humor can be worked into serious stories, and I’m not just talking about dropping a Monty Python line or other anachronistic jape into your blatant Lord of the Rings rip-off. I mean true humor, set in and supported by the world you’ve built. And it makes sense to me. People make jokes. Even in (or perhaps especially in) tense situations, we instinctively seek to release some of that tension by cracking jokes about it. Look at soldiers. Look at gallows humor. Humor is an important part of the human experience, and we as writers should acknowledge this and embrace it, rather than having the attitude that ‘humor is only for comedic or silly stories.’ Portal and Portal 2 have rather demonstrably proven this is not true, and they are incredibly popular games. We can learn from their example.