American novelist Herman Wouk regarded "the writing of humor as a supreme artistic challenge." There came a point in the penning of The Goodwin Agenda when I was in complete concurrence: being particularly attentive to the humor element within the narrative - or the lack thereof. Not that I wanted a stock Falstaff caricature, a comedic fool of ridiculous wit, but it implied a matter of balance.
Upon reflection the novel seemed a dark one: juxtaposed against the political instability of the French Revolution and the brutality of the Terror that followed, the plot moves through a harsh winter landscape where the frozen corpses of the Parisian poor are surreptitiously removed at night, where war-weariness is expressed in the self-severance of limbs to avoid conscription; in short a suspicious and mutually estranged populace suffering a dearth of fundamental necessities. The London landscape is similarly enshrouded by winter, political disaffection, and the fear of imminent French invasion. Within this grim milieu the protagonists themselves are scarred in numerous ways: one dying, another consumed by combat-guilt, a third enduring the perpetual tension of covert operations beneath the gendarme radar. In the formation of these characters I was particularly interested in examining their angst, their agony, their afflictions. However, I entertained some misgivings that the resultant narrative somehow lacked a certain balance: an alleviating humor if you will.
The term 'humor' (from Latin humor meaning 'bodily fluid') derives from the medical discourse of Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks, comprising essentially the notion that the appropriate balance of fluids in the human body (blood, phlegm or bile) were essential for the maintenance of human health and emotional balance. Typical eighteenth-century medical practices such as bloodletting, emetics, and purges were intended to expel a deleterious surplus of one particular humor and thus restore balance to the physical anatomical scale. While dominating medical thought for thousands of years, this theory of humoral types also infiltrated dramatic production and literature, creating choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic character archetypes. The quintessential point here, for modern authors as well as the ancient Greeks, is one of balance. In my various encounters with human nature it was that ability to rise above circumstance that was particularly engaging - to retain a sense of perspective, a certain levity or facetiousness when confronted by the most dire of adversities. For the hero to be able to stagger to his feet despite broken ribs and skin split to the bone; to blink back the blood and grin as he crooked one finger in wicked invitation: "Is that all ye got?" Because it is this interjection of humor, in often what seems the most inappropriate of contexts, that defines a certain resilience, an undeniable fortitude. A character demonstrating this ability will doubtless resonate, paricularly with an American readership and others who find their heroes in underdogs and dark horses.
The interjection of a lighter vein highlights and juxtaposes the moments of tension and fear, provides necessary respite for the reader, and augments and three-dimensionalizes the personalities of the characters. Like all literary elements it requires deft and meticulous application; the particular brand of jocularity must be context and character-appropriate and threaded into the narrative with a subtlety that eludes precise instruction or indeed definition: the American writer E.B. White once said "humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in
the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure
scientific mind." A delicate matter - for one man's amusement is another man's boredom.
A primary protagonist in my novel, Wolfe Trant, is brooding and bitter, and to alleviate his darkness and still be true to the nature of the man I used a dog. Like his new master, this particular mutt had suffered the horrors of Newgate Prison and emerged wounded physically (lost a leg) and pyschically. However, the natural playfulness of the canine breed (liberated and heartily fed) restores and evokes some of the same in his human counterpart. For who can resist a drooled-stick gift, the tail an ecstatic blur of motion, haunches high in the air, the backward scamper and lolling tongue of a grinning pup who wants to play? In this respect, the dog was a useful literary tool to illuminate lighter aspects of Wolfe's personality that might have predominated in easier times.
Once I had determined to interject an element of lightheartedness and laughter, it was specifically a question of where and with whom it belonged. Some characters lend themselves to moments of mirth more easily than others, and only then under the most particular of circumstances. Like Herman Wouk, I found the task a precise and demanding one, and like E.B White, I concluded that humor was an elusively ethereal thing, a subtle interplay of personality and circumstance that would not be coerced or contrived.