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Humor, Contrast, and Harry Potter

In the past, I've been a little afraid of using humor in my writing. And not just because I was afraid no one would laugh at my jokes, although that was certainly possible. (Probable?) It's mostly because I worried that the second the book became amusing, it would stop being taken at all seriously, and whatever intense struggles my characters had would be disregarded. I suspect I am not alone in my secret conviction that if I am going to write about things like Death and Betrayal and Evil (which, let's face it, I usually am), I have to write about them in a somber way.

But for those of you who also find yourselves in the Grim Camp, let's talk about Harry Potter.

Harry Potter is fun. It’s chock full of whimsy, actually. In what other book could you find a main character named Neville Longbottom or Ron Weasley? Or a plant that is covered with pus-filled swellings (bubotubers!)? This is a world that does not take itself too seriously.

And yet, for me, these books have some intensely serious moments. Disturbing moments. Convincing villains who do truly awful things. Deaths that made me cry. Selfless acts that made me feel inspired. I don’t think these books would have affected so many people in such a powerful way if they had just been Fun Books.

It's not just that the books blend serious and fun, but that the fun makes the serious stand out far more than it ordinarily would have, like when you put a white plate on a black tablecloth. Rowling doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head with Serious Thoughts. The books are playful and amusing and imaginative, and the Serious Thoughts that emerge do just that—emerge, when you aren’t expecting them, and take root in you.

In school, one of my writing professors taught us that the mood/situation at the beginning of a scene should never match the mood at its end-- something must change, whether it transitions from negative to positive, or positive to negative, or negative to more negative, or positive to more positive. In other words, there should be a contrast.

Contrast is important in writing. Contrast in sentence length, contrast in pace, contrast in mood-- they all make your work easier to read and more interesting. And this goes for the contrast between serious and funny, too. People make jokes and humorous observations. Some people make jokes and humorous observations especially in dire situations. (I am one of those people, much to the chagrin of my mother, who...isn't.)

I laughed countless times with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. And I also cried over their losses. And while I enjoy reading about wailing mandrake babies and candy that makes your tongue swell, I also feel like I learn something about selflessness and friendship along the way. Basically, what I'm saying is: just like you have to be on a roof to fall off a building, maybe you have to feel good at some point with a character in order to truly grieve with them.

So, even though it's somewhat counter-intuitive, the next time you're worried about the emotional impact of a scene, maybe...think about the last time you let the reader laugh.

Veronica Roth

Veronica is the author of the NYT bestselling YA dystopian thriller series Divergent, published by Harper Collins/Katherine Tegen Books. She's also a graduate of Northwestern University, a Christian, and A Tall Person, among other things.

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  1. You are right on there. If there is no sadness you can't feel joy and vice versa.

  2. So true. Plus humour is a way to cope with all the seriousness in real life - why else do lots of awful jokes get made after terrible events, it's to stop us all getting extremely depressed. Life is full of light and dark, even in the same breath, let's make our writing full of the same.
    I love that you have the Dan Radcliffe pincer scene on repeat. That whole luck potion scene in the film had me in stitches.

  3. This post is just so, so good, Veronica!

    This is precisely the reason why I love HP so much and go back to it all the time..irrespective of whether I'm sad or happy.

    I think books that blend the amusing with the despairing stick with me best :)

  4. I love your point here. You have really captured one of the things that is so magical about Harry Potter, and made me think about how I use contrast in my own writing.

  5. SO TRUE!
    The humor makes the book much more enjoyable!

    Krazyyme @ Young Readers

  6. so true ^^
    i love your posts btw!

  7. You make such a fantastic point. Contrast is huge when it comes to writing, and the difference between the humor in Harry Potter and the dark moments is something that I loved about the series.

    Also, that scene with Ron dancing with McGonagall--one of my favorites.

  8. I don't write humorous for the reasons you described... but also because I feel plainly uncomfortable with it. Or because, if I'm going to poke fun at my characters (which I usually do), it will be very subtly, when I almost slip from their POV to a more exterior one.

    My characters are usually young (teenagers, young adults), and I think young people take themselves so much more seriously than we do when we grow older. I want to give them that. I want to stay close to their seriousness, which at the same time is what allows me to suggest: aren't they taking themselves a little *too* seriously? And that would be the humorous element. That everything's always so serious it ends up being funny/ridiculous sometimes.

    I'm not a Harry Potter fan, so I don't think there's much in those books I'd want to imitate. ;)

  9. The type of fiction I cringe away from is a tale without humor. It's not even realistic. Young adults might take themselves seriously, but they find everything else hilarious.

    Actually, that's probably why I can't stand a lot of contemporary YA fiction. If I can't laugh with a character, I don't care about their suffering. A story with only suffering feels manipulative, saying 'you shouldn't be happy, because other people aren't.'

    It's also why The Book Thief is such a successful story. It's dealing with a situation that is actually much worse than the usual rape-abuse-suicide trifecta (seriously, genocide wins), but it's able to represent the complex nuances of the situation because it represents real life, with all of its moments of joy and triumph, its hilarity and its misery and its fear. Being happy in the face of incontrovertible tragedy is a triumph in itself.

  10. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    That is all.

  11. LOVE this post Vee. I was thinking the other day about how I've liked books that make me cry, but the only books I've truly LOVED have been ones that also made me laugh. It takes a lot of care to make something funny in a book, you know?

    "the next time you're worried about the emotional impact of a scene, maybe...think about the last time you let the reader laugh." Definitely going to be keeping this in mind while writing.

  12. AWESOME POST V. Properly balanced humor and darkness can combine so well and enhance a story *so* much.

  13. I remember when I was a teen writer, I could never understand this. My work had to be intense! and this simply did not pair with funny in my mind.

    But beyond Harry Potter, the ur-text for this phenomenon might be Hamlet. Despite the play's tragedy status, despite it being held up as one of the most brilliant plays that ends with 5+ deaths, it is very funny, too. In the end, Hamlet is sarcastic, sullen, and clever -- even the scene in which he holds the skull is prefaced with jokes made by the gravedigger.

  14. What a great post and so true! JKR had so many memorable funny moments that just made you love her characters more. I'll never forget McGonagall instructing Peeves when tormenting Umbridge by trying to bring down a chandelier -- "It unscrews the other way." And the garden gnome the twins petrified and put on top of their Christmas tree with glued on wings and "really hairy feet." These details are just delightful.

    I love your two scenes of the dance scene and Harry's felix moment! :-)

  15. Love this. I've been struggling with the emotional payoff on my last scene and I think this answers my question. Instead of being somewhat sober going into it, I need it to be lightweight. I'm off to write. Thanks for the advice.

  16. Agree! Right now I'm trying to write a book about a girl who loses her mother, but with a humorous edge. The reason? Life doesn't stop being dark to be funny. Nor does it stop being funny to be dark.


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Item Reviewed: Humor, Contrast, and Harry Potter Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Veronica Roth