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Gumbee Fantasy Writers ‘do’ Humour, wit and character conversation: Number 4 Will Macmillan Jones

Humour.  Well, all my friends here think this one should be easy for me, since I write what is laughingly called ‘Comic fantasy’, but it isn’t really.  MTM has been a proper comedienne, and is probably much better qualified than I am to write a piece on being funny.

Where comedy is concerned, I’m a bit of an existentialist. I prefer to try and let it happen rather than define it. (Actually that’s posh speak for the fact I can’t be bothered to think about it.) But realistically, I beak it up into a few sections.

Word play, one of my favourites.  Double meanings, misunderstandings, friendly banter.

Situational comedy – placing entirely inappropriate people or places or behaviour together, and seeing what happens.  Twisting reality a little to show it from a different angle to our normal view. Plus my preference, of blending the magical and extraordinary with our own daily world.

Slapstick.  I’m just a big kid really, and the slipping on a banana trick, or the bucket of water balanced over a door, yes these make me laugh.

Spontaneity is the key.  I think some of my best lines have been throw away one line jokes that just cropped up, rather than carefully constructed artefacts.  My favourite line ever is still: “I know it’s live yoghurt, but is it meant to come when it’s called?”

I didn’t plan that one.  My personal favourite situation is the initial meeting, in mid air, of an RAF fighter jet and a drunken red dragon carrying a bass guitar.  And slapstick: having the Dark Lord use his superlative evil magical skills to distract his bank manager’s path along the pavement outside the offices, causing the bank manager to walk into a lamppost.

As a taster then, a section from The Satnav of Doom, to be released by Safkhet Publishing on 30 October 2013.

Deep within the financial headquarters of the Edern in North Wales, the CEO of the organisation slapped his hand on the polished boardroom table to attract attention.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said loudly.

By and large, he was completely ignored. Once again he slapped the table, this time with a heavy leather glove pulled from his suit pocket.

“This meeting is called to order!” he said firmly, upping his volume somewhat.

The argument continued to rage.

“The board is now in session!” he shouted, and to emphasise his point, he seized the large golden sword that lay on the conference table, and slammed it down hard. Slowly the table split in two, the halves falling inwards. Silence fell.

“Blear, whatever did you do that for?” asked Lady Hankey, glaring down her long, patrician nose at the CEO.

“That table was an antique,” agreed Lady Meillar.

“Like Blear himself,” muttered Lord Telem. “Just because the boardroom is split around the table, you didn’t have to split the boardroom table as well!” he complained, more loudly.

Comfortably settled, in a chair in the corner, Lord Tosca snored.

“I have tabled a motion!” declaimed Lord Blear.

“And look what happened to the table,” retorted Lord Emyr. “It moved.”

“If The Lady In The Lake ever finds out what you did with her enchanted sword, Blear, she’ll make your life a living hell,” warned Telem.

“Compared to dealing with you lot, that will be a step up, then!” retorted Blear.

“Extraneous insults are the sign of a poor argument,” said Lady Hankey, who was opposing Blear’s suggestion. Not because she disagreed with the idea, just that she had been opposing Blear’s suggestions to her for some time, and wasn’t going to stop now.

“Ever since a travelling enchanter sold Her that spell to turn water into wine, She’s been too drunk to bother about the sword,” Lord Telstar remarked.

Blear smirked.

“True,” agreed Lord Tosca. “The only time she comes out of The Lake now is to wave a clarinet and sing drunkenly at strangers on the shore.”

Telem and Telstar picked up the two halves of the table, and Lady Meillar glued them back together imperfectly with a wave of her hand and a spare incantation she had left over from the last Board meeting.

“Now,” said Lord Blear loudly, “if you would kindly resume your seats, I will recap on the thrust of our discussion to date in the expectation that we may, in the course of our deliberations, achieve a consensus agreement to the proposal which may then be considered to have been retrospectively authorised in regard to the initial expenditure necessarily incurred in the formalisation of the project to formal proposal stage.”

Lady Hankey glared at Lord Blear. “Am I right,” she enquired in glacial tones, “that you are confessing to allowing improper expenditure to have been incurred without the formal permission of the board?”

“No,” replied Lord Blear.

“I’m sorry?” asked Lady Hankey.

“Your apology is accepted, Lady Hankey. Now, moving on.”

“That wasn’t what I meant!”

“Perhaps not, but it is what you have said, and what has been entered in the minutes. Moving on.”

Lady Hankey sighed, but sat down with the others.

“Right,” Blear said smugly at this evidence of corporate compliance. “Briefly then.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit, I’m told,” observed Lady Meillar.

“It is not an instruction within the Corporate Governance Articles,” replied Blear.

Lady Hankey sighed again. Blear gave her a glance, but she stayed quiet.

“As you know,” he continued, “I have been approached by the Governor of The Bank of England, and the Chancellor of The Exchequer.”

“Blear always was a bit slow,” muttered Tosca to Telstar. “Anyone else would have run a mile from those two together.”

“I have asked to provide a feasibility study for the provision by our company of a new economic forecasting system for the treasury. The fee will be substantial.”

There was a murmur of approval.

“And will,” Blear gave Lady Hankey a cold glance, “dispel any lingering concerns about expenditure on this project temporarily carried within the research budget.”

Lady Hankey nodded her reluctant agreement.

Lord Blear took a satisfied breath, and a dissatisfied sip from the glass at his elbow, before continuing, “The new Prime Minister, hoping to avoid a repeat of the last serious recession, has decided that sacrificing chickens and examining their entrails has not, on balance, proved a successful mechanism for economic modelling in the last forty years and a modern system should be incorporated into the treasury’s economic forecasts. Plus, he is a vegetarian, and didn’t want to eat the chicken afterwards as was customary.”

“So,” asked Lord Telstar, “this is the plan B the chancellor was going on about in Parliament the other day?”

“No. The Treasury’s plan B was to send the Chancellor of The Exchequer around London in a taxi, and get financial advice from the driver. But the cab fares were getting a bit pricey, and the driver is retiring. Hence, a new system is considered necessary.”

“Wait a moment,” interrupted Lord Telem. “What happened to that economic forecasting software system that they bought from the Americans two years ago for about thirty million pounds?”

“A comparative exercise over two years has shown that the taxi driver was more accurate.”

“Bet the US government laughed their socks off at that,” said Lord Tosca.

“Not really,” replied Blear. “They had bought the same software, and The Governor of the Federal Bank had to keep flying over here and hiring the same taxi driver we’ve been using. That’s why the driver can afford to retire.”

“What happened to Galadriel’s Magical Mirror system?” asked Lady Meillar. “The one they used to keep in the cellar of Number 11 Downing Street?”

Blear looked a bit uncomfortable. “It’s never been the same since The Lady In The Lake used her spell on the water and turned it into merlot during a Cabinet Office party. It’s one reason the country has been in the red ever since.”

This excerpt is from The SatNav of Doom, fifth in the acclaimed ‘The Banned Underground’ fantasy series, published by Safkhet Publishing Limited and appears with their consent.

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Gumbee Fantasy Writers ‘do’ Humour, wit and character conversation: Number 3 Jaq D Hawkins

Most good stories have some humour, even if the subject matter is deadly serious. I was often surprised by the humorous moments that arose when I first started writing about the world of the goblins in Dance of the Goblins. It was something that carried through the series, but the effect on me as the writer was new and bemusing as I often didn’t see those moments coming until they were upon me.

One of my favourites of these occurred in a tense situation, where my main human character, Count Anton, was wandering a bit further in the goblin caverns than he had previously been allowed. There was still much he did not know about the society of the goblins and he had good cause to be nervous. There was a running joke between Count Anton and Haghuf, the main goblin character. Anton liked to ask questions about the goblins, and Haghuf liked to be evasive the answers. Asked what goblins eat, his answer is quoted in the folowing passage:

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He crept quietly, still listening as hard as he could as he approached the narrow passage that would take him to the deeper levels. He was startled by a sudden clattering of rocks behind him. Turning instinctively into a defensive position, he just caught the sight of a ginger tail disappearing behind a pillar. Letting out the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, he crept around the other side of the pillar to get a better look at the small animal before reaching for it. As he had surmised from the quick glance, it was only a cat. The animal looked as though it intended to back away, yet when Anton extended his hand it relaxed and came forward and brushed itself under his hand to be stroked. He picked it up, grateful to have an ordinary living thing appear in order to break the tense silence of the apparently deserted cavern.

He walked back to the passage, but released the cat before stepping through the opening. As he put the creature down, the words echoed in his mind, ‘Whatever comes to us.’ Immediately he tried to shoo it further away from the passage, but it slipped past him and scurried through the opening. Anton tried to follow, but the cat ran too fast and disappeared into one of the labyrinthine corridors that branched off from the initial passage. He had no choice but to give it up for lost.

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Oh dear, poor kitty. Anton travels further and eventually comes across a goblin he knows, but not Haghuf. He is invited to the Storytelling, an event that no human has witnessed before. It is simply a gathering of goblins to share food and relate tales before the drumming and dancing starts, but the spiritual, Shamanic nature of The Dance makes the whoe experience insular. No matter his friendships, Anton is not part of the tribe. His discomfiture plays a role in the offhand humour as a pair of good-natured goblins wind him up a  bit.

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Anton was led to an expansive cavern that was filled with far more goblins than he realised actually lived in all of Krapneerg. It was no wonder that the other levels seemed so deserted, they had all gone to Storytelling. From what Haghuf had told him of Storytelling, it should have been no surprise that it was so well attended. It was more than an entertainment, but a central news gathering where goblins learned the histories and science of their kind as well as hearing stories of current events. Legends and tales that they made up themselves would be interspersed randomly with the sort of information that human children would learn in schools and even with lessons in the use of magic for the young ones.

A few heads turned as they entered the room from the back. Anton imagined that he saw some disapproving expressions and a couple of exaggerated sniffs from goblins he didn’t recognise, but they quickly turned their attention back to Talla, who was at the front of the room telling the story of his rescue of her. The sight of her thrilled him in an odd way, one which he found a little disconcerting. Another goblin appeared from beside them, pushing roughly made bowls of food into their hands.  Leap motioned for him to follow to a vacant place where they could sit and listen.

(edited for brevity)

Anton examined the food he had been given. His natural inclination was to assess its nature carefully before putting anything into his mouth. He felt some conflict between his curiosity about goblin fare and his reluctance to find himself with a mouthful of cat… or worse… which made him cautious. There were fresh vegetables which surprised him as they couldn’t have been grown underground. He started munching on a carrot so that he would not seem impolite while he tried to determine the nature of the meat. There was no bread or other baked goods which was unsurprising. It appeared to be a very healthy combination of meat, vegetables, and some sort of nuts or grain ground up and cooked into a porridge which was at the bottom of the bowl. Anton glanced at Leap and saw that he had nearly finished his own meal and was using two fingers to bring the porridge to his mouth like a spoon.

He imitated the motions as best he could, but could not help taking a careful sniff of the meat. It smelled and looked like roast pork, but he could not be sure. He had heard that human flesh had a similar smell and texture. Suddenly a large flat hand descended heavily on his shoulder and a voice was whispering in his ear.

‘It’s swine, nobody you know.’ He turned and saw an unfamiliar goblin grinning at him, enjoying his discomfiture. Anton smiled back, and took a bite. He hoped the goblin was telling the truth. At least he knew he was safe from anything worse than this good natured teasing, as Leap had invited him to the Storytelling and therefore  he was guest. Just as he was about to turn around and give his attention to the story being told, something else caught his eye, a patch of ginger fur at the back of the room. The cat had wandered right into the one place that was packed with goblins.

There was nothing he would be able to do to rescue it now. Its scent drew several pairs of eyes around to look straight at it. He tried willing the creature to run for its life, but the cat caught sight of him and stupidly started running directly towards him instead. The cat leaped at him and he raised his hands to catch it, hoping that the goblins would extend guest immunity to it when they saw that it had befriended him. But the cat didn’t land in Anton’s arms. Instead, it settled squarely on the shoulder of the goblin who had spoken to him. Anton guessed that his own expression must have been one of shock and horror judging from the laughter of several of the goblins who were near enough to witness the little drama playing out. The goblin next to him didn’t react to the cat, but turned to Anton, grinning at him once again.

‘This is Lucky. We don’t eat him either.’ The goblin reached to stroke the cat on his shoulder as he spoke. From behind him, another goblin leaned forward and spoke.

‘That’s why we call him Lucky!’ He said through his laughter. All of them seemed to be amusing themselves by watching his obvious concern for the little cat.

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Gumbee Fantasy Writers ‘do’ Humour, wit and character conversation: Number 2 Marcus Pailing

The difficulty of attempting to include humour in a fantasy novel is summed up very nicely by Diana Wynne Jones, in her superb book on the clichés and tropes of fantasy writing, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996):

Jokes are against the Rules, except for very bad cumbersome jokes cracked by Guards, Mercenaries, Other Peoples and servitors. (It is believed that the Management actually thinks these are very good jokes, and treasures them.) Everyone else must be deadly serious, although the Small Man, some Wizards and most bad Kings are allowed to have a sense of humour …

Some writers (including many of my esteemed colleagues of the Gumbee Fantasy Writers’ Guild) manage to pull it off, and we all know how successful Terry Pratchett is.

Personally, I find it very difficult to write humour, and have tended to avoid it where I can. However, I do like my characters to be ‘real’, and therefore I have included episodes of banter. Perhaps my readers won’t find any of it funny, exactly; but I would always hope that it will convey the bonhomie of my characters. Often it also reveals information about how the characters in my novels view the world around them (see the previous theme of ‘How characters interact with their worlds’).

This first excerpt comes from the novel Fields of Battle. Kieldrou, the Count of Trall, is riding to join his army, and he is joined on the road by a group of his men-at-arms, who have been kicking their heels on one of his manors. With them also is Aelfric, a veritable giant of a man and a ferocious warrior, who has only recently become one of Kieldrou’s most trusted companions. As well as the soldiers’ joking about Aelfric, the conversation also shows us the high regard in which the Trallians hold themselves.

 “Honestly, my lord,” their captain said. “We exercised the horses, we practised our arms, and we even built a new barn for your seneschal, just to keep ourselves busy. But your message to meet you was a great relief. Is it true that the Hussanians have invaded Barrowgrar, then?”

“It is. Fernhelm is still there, with around twenty of his foresters, and a couple of hundred Hograthian soldiers. But, if I am right, there are thousands upon thousands of Hussanians there, too.”

One of the soldiers grinned. “That seems a bit one-sided, my lord. Could Fernhelm not send a few of his men away, to even things out a bit?”

They all laughed at that, and Kieldrou let the jokes die down before becoming serious again. “It will be a hard ride, lads. I know you are up for it, but I have to say I don’t know what we will find when we get there. I’m expecting around fifteen thousand men to have come over from Trall, but I expect the Hussanians will have three or four times that number. We have to establish a presence in Barrowgrar and hold it until the Hograthians can come to our aid. But I don’t know how long that will be.”

The men instinctively knew that this was not a matter for more jokes. “We will do what we must, my lord,” the captain said. “We won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t,” the count returned. “Because we are all men of Trall.”

“Aelfric isn’t,” the joker said, and everyone turned, fearing their comrade had made a terrible faux pas, knowing how much store the count put by the Phrionnsae. “Aelfric is a giant of Trall,” the man continued with a huge grin. Aelfric might have been born a Phrionnsae, and he might have spent no more than three weeks on Trall so far, but by that it was clear that he had already been adopted. The Phrionnsae cracked one of his rare grins, and the others laughed again.

 Later, once Kieldrou is with his army, he repeats the ‘joke’ about the Trallians’ prowess:

“Listen, men,” he went on, holding his hands up for silence. “We’re marching at dawn. The Hussanians have invaded Barrowgrar, and we’re already late giving them a reply. There are twenty Trallians over there, facing thousands of Hussanians, with only a couple of hundred Hograthians to back them up. I know they won’t thank us for stealing their glory; but as one of them is my foster brother, I wouldn’t mind giving them a bit of a hand as soon as we can. So I need to speak to your captains, and you need to start packing.”

Poor old Aelfric is not to be let off the hook, either. As the army prepares to march off to face their enemies, some of the rank-and-file soldiers take a good look at the Phrionnsae, who now appears at his most terrifying, in full armour:

Aelfric rode beside Kieldrou, his bulk sitting easily on the great destrier that itself struck terror into any man who came close to its powerful legs and snapping jaws – they did not yet know that the Hussanians had thousands of these beasts. Aelfric had worn his armour this morning, appearing behind Kieldrou sporting his iron helm, which obscured his features save for the flash of his eyes through the dark-shadowed slits.

“He’s a demon,” whispered one trooper. “Look at the size of him. I’m glad he’s not the enemy.”

“Is being on our side any better?” asked his comrade with a nervous laugh. “He’s the stuff of legends, though, I reckon. Theops himself, come back to stand with us.”

“If he dies,” commented a third, spitting casually into the grass, and pulling on his own helmet, “ten to one says he takes a good few men to Hell with him.”

“He’ll draw the enemy to him like flies to honey,” the second man said. “Keep away from Aelfric, if you want to live, that’s what I say.”

The first man adjusted his gauntlets. “Keep behind him if you want to live, rather.”

The valour and prowess of the Trallians is obviously a bit of a joke, not just to the Trallians themselves, but to their allies, as well. In the novella Questions of Allegiance, the Hograthian army prepares to march to Barrowgrar, to join forces with the men of Trall. Once again the Trallians’ reputation receives an airing:

We were up with the dawn, roused by shouts from our constable, who had himself been woken by the marshals. When we rolled out of our cloaks, groaning, Harnic laughed.

“Don’t complain,” he called. “Apparently the Earl arrived late last night, and he wants us on the move as soon as possible.”

“Already?” complained Madric. “But the whole army isn’t here, surely?”

“Of course not, lad. The rest of the army is gathered further east, some even as far as Riverdeep. You wouldn’t expect the eastern levies to march all the way over here, away from Barrowgrar, would you?”

Madric gave a sheepish grin. “I don’t know. I don’t know where Riverdeep is, do I?”

“Anyway, we’re moving today, because the Hussanians have attacked Barrowgrar.”

We leaped to our feet, our tiredness and stiffness forgotten, and at once we crowded round Harnic, calling for more information. After nearly thirty days of training, preparation and marching, the expected attack had finally come.

“A messenger arrived from Randek on the day of the King’s coronation, apparently. Burst in just as Theofric was taking the homage of his barons. The Count of Trall left the City immediately, and he and his islanders might already be in Barrowgrar. That means that we have to hurry, otherwise it’ll be fifteen thousand Trallians against forty thousand Hussanians.”

“Sounds like an even fight, from what I know of the Trallians,” shouted one of the veterans from Gerroch town. We laughed: everyone knew of the quality of the islanders.

Harnic nodded. “Probably. But I doubt our good lords want the Count to gain all the glory. So, the quicker we can get there, the sooner we get to share the laurels. So pack up your gear and be ready to march.”

What I like about this last snippet is that it gave me another opportunity to demonstrate the characters’ interactions with their world. Most of the men of the Hograthian army have spent their whole lives in one place, never having travelled. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Madric should be so ignorant of the geography of the rest of the kingdom.

We now return to the novel Fields of Battle. Of course, not all conversations are humorous banter between groups of friends; there is the opportunity for bitching, as well. As Kieldrou, the Count of Trall, had recently married a foreigner, Rhianne, I wondered how she would be received by the aristocratic ladies of Hograth. In this last excerpt, Rhianne has just been introduced to a group of ladies, and their conversation has been most polite and proper. However, as soon as Rhianne moves on …

How could they fault the countess, who was both beautiful and clever, friendly and well-mannered? There was none of the cold haughtiness about her that they feared, or perhaps hoped to see, so that they might with justification find fault with her. Indeed, as the entourage passed on, what could they find to criticize?

“She is, of course, from Luourn,” one well-informed lady said confidentially to her friends. “That caused a stir here in Hograth, you can guess.”

“Hardly surprising, though,” tutted the wife of Elnir Terendor, the lord of Vergira. “Kieldrou is so rarely at home, it is natural that he should end up with a foreigner.”

“It’s not really right, though, is it? I mean, the Count of Trall with a  foreign bride.” The first lady, Theodora, the wife of the lord of Millacre, was in her stride now.

“Well, there are some who say he is from the north himself,” whispered the waspish wife of Pardron Ennivar of Steerchase. “He was only adopted by the old count, you know.”

The fourth lady of the group was Egitha, wife to Hemdell Mendivar of Elfinvale, who was the great-nephew of Rhegus, the Earl of Mendivar. She waved away her friends’ comments. “I have heard she is truly delightful, whatever her provenance. And we must admit, ladies, that she is very lovely to look at. It is no wonder she entranced the count.”

“Black hair, though,” countered the lady of Millacre. Fair or red hair were the fashionable colours in Hograth, the epitome of beauty according to the poets. “And her skin is rather dark, I think.”

“By Hogra, Theodora,” Egitha of Elfinvale gasped, exasperated. “She’s descended from an Andalasian princess. Will you find fault with that, as well?”

The ladies fell silent. As far as pedigree was concerned, one could hardly complain about a scion of the Andalasian imperial family. Egitha, who had heard everything that Kieldrou had told Rhegus Mendivar about his wife, was not going to let on that Rhianne’s relationship to the throne of that eastern land was a long way removed.

If I tried to write humorous fantasy, I am sure I would fail. I hope, however, that I am able to introduce at least some light-heartedness to my characters, at least from time to time. This banter can be used to impart information to the reader, as well as to provide some insight into their personalities and opinions. All in all, I like to think that a spot of humour can add an essence of vérité which, otherwise, might be lacking.

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