In a good humor

2014-8-4 CiceroIn Timeline by Michael Crichton, Sir Daniel says of Chris, “He speaks like Cicero.”

While I’m slightly horrified to admit I’ve read this book, this line is probably the funniest line in a work of historical fiction/fantasy I’ve ever read.

Silly, right? Let me tell you why it works for me.

Chris comes from the twentieth century, and he’s trying not to be killed by pretending to fit into fourteenth-century Dordogne. The only way he can communicate is by speaking Latin, but like most of us in the modern era, he was only taught Classical Latin. Sir Daniel knows medieval (or church) Latin, but like us in the modern era, would have read and been familiar with Classical authors like Cicero.

Thus, when Sir Daniel says, “He speaks like Cicero,” a modern reader (who knows this rather complicated set of happenstances) reads a puzzled, bemused tone, and that’s what makes it funny – the confluence of backstory and historical knowledge and the experiences the reader brings to the moment.

If you don’t know this stuff? This line is a total throwaway.

Which, rather circuitously, brings me to my point: Humor is context. It’s execution. And it’s perspective.

All of which dovetail into a serious set of challenges for a historical writer to make something intentionally funny.

Me, I find humor in general is hard to write because it’s so diverse. Dramatic moments are little more universal, but humor is highly personal and relies on a more complex set of inputs.

2014-8-4 Facepalm

Facepalm. Facepalm. Facepalm.

But it’s also not as out of reach as we might think.

For instance, my teenage son loves Jackass. If you’re not familiar with this franchise, it features young men getting hurt by doing bone-stupid things. I watched it with my kid once, and what occurred me wasn’t Wow, this is awful, why would anyone watch this?

I thought, Medieval people would have lined up around the block to watch this show. They also thought people getting hurt, especially by doing dumb stuff, was hilarious.

It was a reminder that not only do we have more in common with the people in the past than we often realize, there are a lot of opportunities to bring these small humanizing moments into historical fiction. We might not all agree on what’s funny, but we all like to laugh.

What about you? What are some moments in historical fiction that you found hilarious? What about them worked for you?

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About J. Anderson Coats

J. Anderson Coats writes historical fiction for young adults chockful of name-calling and petty violence. THE WICKED AND THE JUST (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is about teenagers behaving badly in thirteenth-century Wales.

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