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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:


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.


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.


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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Gumbee Fantasy Writers ‘do’ Humour, wit and character conversation: Number 1 Jim Webster

I thought I’d put in an example from ‘Dead Man Riding East’ where characters are just talking. They’re not trying to forward the plot or to make a point. Yes, information is gained but really they’re talking together for the love of banter and because the ordinary things of life are so much better if we manage to get a smile out of them.
At the same time a picture is painted of the area and you see the place and people through their own eyes. We have no ‘belly laughs’ but the characters aim to amuse each other, and who knows, perhaps the reader as well.

In this short piece, the Hero, Benor, is travelling with Alissa, a lady he is romantically entangled with, and her niece Iola. Iola is not perhaps twenty. They have stopped by the side of the road and have just had a drink from their shared water flask.

As they shared another drink they heard the sound of harness, and a covered wagon pulled by a team of four small ponies caught up with them from the south. Painted on the canvas, both above the driver and along the sides, were the words, ‘Tillinhorne Cousins, Provision Merchants.’

Benor glanced at the other two. “Breakfast?”

Iola nodded, “Oh yes, his pies are worth waiting for!”

Benor stepped forward and waved for the wagon to stop. The driver, a heavy man wearing a white smock and a brown hat that looked as if he was wearing a poorly risen loaf on his head, pulled on the reins and eventually the assemblage stopped.

“Well gentlefolk, what can I do for you?”

“We’re on our way to ‘Ferryman’s Rest’ and started too early for breakfast. We were wondering whether you were selling anything suitable.”

The big chap half turned in his seat and shouted behind him. “Cousin, we have customers!”

A female voice came from inside the wagon. ”No need to shout, Tillinhorne, I’m neither deaf nor daft. But another week working with you I’ll doubtless end up one or both.”

A short thin woman climbed onto the bench seat beside him and looked at them.

“I’ve got the stove just ticking over; I can soon have something ready.”

Iola jumped into the conversation, “Three orid and ale pies, please.” She gestured at Benor, “He’s paying.”
Benor nodded and dipped into his purse, then stopped.

“Any chance of a lift northwards whilst we’re waiting for breakfast?”

The woman nodded. “If Tillinhorne will shift his fat backside you’ll get at least two more up here, and one can sit with me in the wagon.”

The big man shuffled across, Benor and Alissa sat next to him and Iola climbed over the seat into the wagon, leaving the flap open behind her. The driver flicked the ponies into motion again and they started on their way.

Benor passed a handful of copper coin back to Iola and turned back to the road.
The driver glanced at him.

“Going far?”

“Well, just ‘Ferryman’s Rest’ today.”

“You’ll struggle, it’s a fair step. You’ll probably need to find somewhere to spend tonight. I can give you a lift to the East-West road, but I’m going west to deliver to customers down in that direction.”

“Any inns along the road?”

”Not until the ‘Ferryman’s Rest’. All along the road are big houses and estates owned by the wealthy of Watersmeet.” Here he winked at Alissa, “They keep a wife in Watersmeet and a mistress in the country, and thus remain respectable.”

Alissa grinned back at him. “Respectability in Watersmeet consists of mastering the gussets in a garment you cannot publically admit to knowing the existence of.”

“You have lived long in Watersmeet?”

“I did once, but have travelled and am on my way home.”

Tillinhorne nodded knowingly, “Well nothing has changed while you were away. Oh, no doubt pleats are out and buttons are in, and from memory you don’t use red with yellow, or was that last year, but nothing has changed.”

At this point his cousin passed out a meat pie on a bread platter. Benor passed it to Alissa and took the next one for himself. Two forks were then passed out and they started eating. Tillinhorne sat in thoughtful silence for a while.

“You haven’t offered names and I haven’t asked for them, but I recognised young Iola, and doubtless you are kin of hers who were somehow involved in matters at ‘The Retreat’.”

Benor, his mouth full of pie, inclined his head in what he hoped was a non-committal manner.

“Well if you’re looking for somewhere to stay tonight, try the house of Illantwich. He is throwing it open for a preview of the new season fashions. If you arrive late enough he’ll probably put you up.”

Alissa looked thoughtful, “Illantwich? How old is he?”

Tillinhorne shrugged, “He’d doubtless claim thirty, I’d guess forty. His mother, who swears she isn’t a day over thirty five, is a loyal customer of mine and I would not doubt her word under any circumstances.”

Benor looked at Alissa, “You know him?”

“I might do, fifteen years ago there was an Illantwich of about the right age.”

Iola leaned out through opening. “His house specialises in jackets and similar. Apparently he’s renowned for his choice of fabrics and his eye for colour.” She sniffed, “Personally I think he is known for being grossly self-opinionated”

Alissa nodded, “That could describe the Illantwich I knew, but being self opinionated is hardly a distinguishing mark in this town.”

Tillinhorne nodded sagely. “I would suggest that having a high opinion of oneself is the mark of a good citizen of Watersmeet. I am a fine fellow who sells the finest provender on either bank of the Lamaguire. My cousin may disagree with part of this, but then she prides herself in being the person in Watersmeet who is most difficult to impress. I have no doubt that a Watersmeet night soil collector will boast that he is the one with the dirtiest cart or the most disagreeable personal chife. We are citizens of a town distinguished by the distinguished nature of the people who deign to inhabit it.”

Benor sighed. “I am truly humbled by this opportunity to mix with such distinguished people.”

Tillinhorne tapped the front pony, which had stopped to browse. “Indeed humility is an area in which one might find the folk of Watersmeet lacking. It is good to meet such a distinguished practitioner.”

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