We all know that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin, which is what often gets people (like comedians and politicians) into trouble. “How can you make fun of that?” goes the Twitterverse. I only have to mention Kathy Griffin’s bloody Trump head to make my point.
So much of what we think of as funny arises from what in real life is pure misery. If you slip on a banana peel and fall, you will not think it’s funny. But if a character does it – and even ends up in the hospital covered from head to toe in bandages – you will laugh. In fact, the more bandages the better. Add traction and you have a laugh riot.
It seems to me that what you are experiencing at moments like these is a sense of victory over despair. You are laughing in the face of your inevitable doom and asserting your power over life itself. Which of course is laughable on the face of it. But never mind, it’s all in good fun.
The truth is, writers like myself relish the opportunity to explore the comic/tragic continuum. It’s our bread and butter.
In my novel The Heart of Henry Quantum which I wrote under the pen name Pepper Harding, Henry’s wife Margaret is confronted by a terribly tragic event. She witnesses an attempted suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s part of one of the most amusing – and most telling -- scenes in the book – yet it is really about the ultimate tragedy – our own isolation.
When I was writing the sequel, which I hope will come out in the not too distant future, my editor suggested I take on the story of that young woman who was contemplating suicide. Like Balzac or Zola she thought I might turn a minor character from one novel into the protagonist of another. But when I started reading about suicides, and especially when I looked at photos of real people hanging off the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating whether to jump or not, my heart simply broke. I couldn’t find anything funny about it. The despair in those photos was overwhelming and so terrifying to me, I changed course and wrote an entirely different (and, my agent says, hysterically funny) book.
But back to The Heart of Henry Quantum. In the scene to which I alluded, Margaret is rushing to meet her lover but all traffic is being held up on the bridge because some girl can’t decide whether or not she wants to jump. The clock is ticking away on Margaret’s own future happiness. Finally, in frustration, she leaps from her car and confronts another driver:
“Anything happen yet?” she asked.
“I don't know.”
“It seems to me if you want to kill yourself, go ahead,” she said.
“Yeah, but what if it’s some teenager? Or your brother or husband or sister?”
“Don’t you think people should be able to do what they want?”
“You really believe we should let troubled people kill themselves?”
“I’m sure you’re right,” she said to mollify him, but what she was really thinking was, Hitler was troubled. Should we have stopped him from committing suicide?
What is happening here is not really about the girl contemplating suicide. It’s about elucidating Margaret’s character. And because every character you write about is really you, it’s about exploring my own reactions to tragedies that happen to people I don’t care about. For me, a light hand is the best tool for that exploration. It lets me see things I might turn from if I took too heavy a stance.
Another plus is that when tragedy and comedy (in the classic sense of the word) pull against each other tension is expanded and the dramatic experience is heightened and sharpened. As I mentioned, a tool in every writer’s toolbox.
One of the joys of writing fiction is that your characters are free to go to the places, to say and do things, we wouldn’t dare in real life. Even though we might – and do -- think them.
So when you pick up that pen to write, dig deep into the very worst part of you – and even if you transform it into laughter you’ll be laying bare a truth that will lift your work to the next level.