|Once upon a time I found this amusing...|
I remember, clear as day, the moment I realised that studying English at university had been a mistake. My tutorial group had been sent off to choose a text which we found funny and explain why. I forget which book I picked — maybe something by Jane Austen — but the moment I sat down to write I was in trouble. The second I began the analysis, whatever had made me laugh ceased to be funny.
I changed my course shortly afterwards, and even now when people ask me, shaking their heads as they do so, why I don’t like Jane Austen, I reply that I don’t like comedies of manners. Which is true, because thanks to that long-ago tutorial, I can’t see how such subtlety is funny.
Fast forward a few decades. I’m working on a plot. I have a new character — a secondary one, but no less important for that. He’s a middle aged lawyer with an interest in antiques. His love life is rewarding and complicated and he woos the ladies with more than just a handsome bearing and a healthy bank balance. He wins them with his dry wit.
And here’s the problem. In my head he’s witty. The most cynical woman can’t resist him and the most envious rival can’t suppress a smile at his sharp and observant comments. Yet when it comes to setting him on the page the wit somehow disappears. His remarks are dry. They’re clever. But they aren’t in any way funny.
How often have you heard someone repeat an anecdote, fail to raise a laugh, shrug and then sign off with that admission of defeat: you had to be there? I do it often. It’s because I have no sense of timing; it’s a rare occasion when I think of the right thing to say at the right time, rather than two days (or, worse, two minutes) later.
Millions of people are essentially funny. Some of them are even funny when they write. Many of those write newspaper columns. Some of them write books. But they are everywhere in life and they are some of the most successfully people in terms of romance. (He makes me laugh — surely the cry of every honest heroine everywhere.)
As someone who is funny neither in the flesh nor on the page I find it impossible to imbue my characters with the wit I know they have. Am I doomed to be for ever humourless? Oh, how I hope not.