Cheer Up, Emo Kid: Humour in Young Adult Fiction, by Nansi Kunze
When I was sixteen, I grew my fringe to cover one eye, slouched around in a black jumper and eyeliner and listened to The Cure.
Now, before you begin to imagine that I was in any way cool, let me point out that I wasn’t a proper goth. The fringe idea was partly just to cover my terrible acne. The eyeliner was the only goth makeup I owned, since I lived hours away from any shop that would stock a lipstick darker than Saucy Plum. And if I’d thought I might be able to dress in an impressively subcultural way, I was soon disabused of that notion; the first time I went out in public in ripped jeans I got told off for ‘lowering the tone of the district’. In my own dorky way, however, I was an angst-ridden teenager, complete with existential thoughts, a penchant for depressing music and a tendency to have Anna Karenina recommended to me by librarians.
What the librarians didn’t realise, though, was that what I really liked to read wasn’t dark and gloomy at all. Oh, I read Anna Karenina – after all, who wouldn’t be impressed by half a kilo of confusing Russian names in small print and a cover plastered with dudes in fur hats? But I didn’t enjoy it. I much preferred books by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Books that were funny. Yes, you read that right. I liked humour … and what’s more, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one. In fact, moody, black-lipstick-wearing teenagers the world over love fiction that incorporates humorous elements.
‘Nonsense!’ I hear someone say (hopefully a reader who’s about 102 years old and has stumbled on this blog by mistake). ‘Everyone knows YA fiction is all about the angst. Look at Twilight! Look at all those dark, creepy book covers! Teenagers don’t want funny stuff – they want vampires and werewolves, gore and tragedy!’ Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, Pops, but you’re wrong on a couple of counts there.
Teenagers don’t just want paranormal fiction … but even if they did, that wouldn’t preclude the use of humour in YA writing. Ever hear of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Some of the very best and most beloved paranormal paradigms are peppered with humour. There are good reasons for this – the most obvious being that nothing throws a dark situation into sharp relief like a light-hearted moment. A self-deprecating quip or a little banter can add dimension to any character, alive or undead. And it’s worth remembering, too, that even those readers who seek out the bleakest dystopias to immerse themselves in need to come up for air every so often. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the presence of humour somehow belittles any serious themes you’re trying to address in your writing; anyone who tells you that wouldn’t know a good novel if it came up and bit them in the neck.
So how do you go about using this wonderful technique called comedy? Well, like any other writing skill, it’s partly practice and partly learning from the masters: write lots and read lots. Another method I find helpful, however, is to examine the way humour is used in other forms of storytelling. TV shows are especially good at illustrating how dialogue can be used to great effect; you can totally justify sitting in front of an entire season of Buffy or Angel for this purpose. Want to know how humour can enliven your mystery writing? Watch a little Sherlock. Feel your sci-fi needs more funny business? Get out your Dr Who collection! And remember that, hidden behind their fringes, even emo kids laugh sometimes.