Character Reactions Are the Laugh Tracks of Books

Any TV show that’s filmed live has little signs that tell the audience when to applaud. Almost all TV shows use laugh tracks so that audience members know when to laugh, and movies have soundtracks that tell the audience when they should feel happy or sad or scared.

What do books have?

Books have words. (duh) They have words that shape the mood like a soundtrack would. They have words that give the reader clues for what’s coming next (like signs). And they have words that show character reactions, reactions that tell you when you’re supposed to laugh.

That’s what a laugh track is doing, after all. It’s a recorded track of people laughing. That’s it. Other people laughing – and it works.

Have you ever been with a group of friends, and someone said something that made one of you laugh? Then, suddenly all of you are laughing and can’t stop. But when you try to explain to someone later, they don’t understand why it’s funny. And you can’t really tell them because, deep down, you were mostly laughing because someone else was laughing, and you got caught up in the moment.

It works with clapping, yelling, violence, and even yawning. Something about our psyche is tuned into other people’s responses (See crowd psychology).

So if you have a really funny moment in your book, show the reader that it’s funny through the other character’s reactions to whatever just happened. Granted, if it was really that funny, they should be reacting anyway. But the characters’ reactions help show the reader how funny it is. They make it seem funnier. Facial expressions, body language, statements, actions, etc. become the laugh track for the book. In fact, they help guide all reader reactions (scared, disgusted, annoyed, etc.).

Now, do laugh tracks always work?

No. If a laugh track plays at a sublimely unfunny moment, people won’t necessarily laugh anyway; however, it can help make a slightly humorous moment seem wittier than it was. Don’t ask me why (I wasn’t a psych major), but people definitely react more strongly when they get the impression that other people are reacting, too.

That’s why stage performers (actors/musicians/etc.) may joke about putting a “plant” in the audience. A “plant” is someone who knows when to laugh, gasp, cheer, and so on, and those reactions help influence the rest of the audience to be more involved in the show. The term comes from how historic snake oil salesmen or stage magicians would plant a cohort in the audience to pretend to be a complete stranger who is picked to help with the show.

Well, the closest thing we have to “plants” in books are the characters we create and the reactions we give them. So why not use them to our advantage?

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Eccentricities vs. Character Building: The Fine Line Between Awesome & Creepy

If you want an old character to be awesome and enjoyable, you can give the character some personality quirks (eccentricities) that make the character unique, unexpected, and hilarious (see “2 Types of Kick-ass Old Characters That People Love“). So what do you do if you want to make the old person (or any character) creepy and horrifying? Easy. Give them personality quirks.

Wait. What?

Yeah, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. Personality quirks can make a character awesome or creepy or annoying (or something else). In fact, the same personality quirks could do any of the 3. For example, saying whatever comes to mind:

            “This boot makes a great hat!”

Let’s say that Aunt Mabel (who can’t sew but loves quilting bees, bakes delicious cookies for visitors, and would never hurt a fly except in defense of her houseplants) said this as she pulled a boot out of the closet and stuck it on her head. Assuming that the characters around her shake their heads and chuckle, the audience is liable to be amused, too (unless this is simply not their style of fiction).

On the other hand, if a maniacal serial killer (with blood splattered across her face, a dead body at her feet, and a big toothy smile) said this as she pulled the dripping boot off the corpse’s body and puts it on her head, it’d be a whole other story. The characters around her wouldn’t laugh unless they were hysterical or equally twisted, and the reader is more likely to be shocked, disgusted, or horrified than amused.

And if the main character’s kid sister (who never shuts up, has the energy of a humming bird, and has the bad tendency of following the main character around and ignoring any hints or commands to stop) said it in a store as she grabs a boot off the rack and sticks it on her head giggling (after doing similarly time-consuming and pointless stuff for the last half-hour), the main character’s more likely to explode with irritation and spent patience – and the reader will probably cheer.

These are 3 very distinct reactions to the same statement made by a female character. The quirk of blurting out whatever she thinks is the same, too. But that’s only a minor facet of the characterization. Core values, context, actions, and character interactions are all bigger parts of the character than his/her quirks. Those big details shape the reader’s response far more than the eccentricity alone.

Think of eccentricities as an optional spice in a recipe. Yes, having the spice and putting it in can make the recipe better. But you can make the recipe without it. You can’t, however, make the recipe by adding that spice and leaving out other non-optional (A.K.A. essential) ingredients.

So you can’t rely on a quirk alone, and you need to make sure that the character building backs up the quirk for the effect you want. The first (a character with plenty of eccentricities but no real depth) ends up becoming a caricature instead of a strong character. The second option could turn your lovable, hilarious, and awesome kung fu master into a creepy, villainous, or annoying kung fu master that the main character really shouldn’t listen to. It’s a surprisingly easy transition.

Long story short: eccentricities are great, but character building is everything.

2 Types of Kick-ass Old Characters That People Love

Has anyone else noticed how much people love old characters who kick butt and/or defy social norms? They tend to become favorite characters because they’re so unexpected – they break our concept of old people. As a rule, we expect older characters to be weak, confused, and either excessively grumpy or sweet. When they say shocking things or suddenly destroy someone in a fight, it’s instant love.

 1. The Incorrigible Oldster

These characters are kind of like eighty-year-old teenagers or toddlers except they know exactly what they’re doing. They say whatever comes to their mind, and they don’t care whom they shock when they do. They follow the mantra I’m old, so I can do what I want.

Because they say such outlandish things, they tend to be pretty funny and very popular with audiences whether in books, movies, or tv. Here are a few examples:

  • The Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey is famous for her one-line zingers that put people in their place in a bold and hilarious manner. Don’t mess with that old lady!
  • Hub & Garth McCann from Secondhand Lions played by Robert Duvall & Michael Caine are the epitome of old people doing what they want. They even talk about how old they are and how they don’t have to put up with stuff anymore.
  • Grandma Mazur from One for the Money by Janet Evanovich: “I shot that sucker right in the gumpy.” There’s nothing quite like the main character of the book having to make sure she keeps her gun away from her grandma.
  • Up‘s Carl Fredricksen shows his incorrigibility through his behavior. Like when he imagines accidentally dropping Russell or, I don’t know, turning his house into an aircraft with helium balloons.
  • Or what about the old lady from The Wedding Singer who raps?

These are the types of old characters who horribly embarrass, discomfit, or startle other characters in the story: usually their children or grandchildren (Dad, what are you doing?!!). They also tend to have really memorable quotes or actions.

 2. The Old Master

If you think about almost any martial arts movie, you’ll know exactly what I mean. The old master is the character who looks older than God but can still kick all the young whippersnappers’ butts. Here are 2 examples you’re probably familiar with.

  • Master Miyagi from The Karate Kid: The seemingly old, small, and harmless repairman breaks out elite martial arts moves and stuns everyone.
  • Yoda from the Star Wars movies: See when the frail-looking, tiny alien creature lifted a ship out of the marsh when the young, talented upstart could not.

But don’t think that the list ends there. The old characters don’t have to be masters of martial arts or even fighting. They could be the master of whatever area they work in: magic, ranching, cooking, ballet, etc. The most important thing is that they’re old and that they have that level of skill that they can pull out and use to impress youngsters. Which means that they also don’t have to be male.

  • Jake from Big Jakeportrayed by John Wayne, Big Jake repeatedly proves that he is the roughest, toughest guy out there and that the younger generation has a lot to learn to match him.
  • Miss Marple is one of Dame Christie‘s most famous detectives. She is a sweet, innocent-looking old woman with a mind sharper than most of the actual police detectives she comes across. She’s often knitting something pastel and fluffy while solving a complicated crime, and the contrast is part of what makes her such a beloved character.
  • Granny Weatherwax from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books is the head witch of all the witches. She’s so knowledgeable and powerful (See BADASS) that the other witches pretty much defer to her or don’t dare to openly cross her.

Incorrigible Old Masters

These 2 character types are so awesome that authors sometimes make characters who are both at once: masters of their trades who also say totally outlandish things or have pretty eccentric behavior. Some of the ones I’ve listed already could go on this list, as well, but these  next 4 are really blatant combos.

  • King Bumi and Uncle Iroh from Avatar: The Last Airbender are both varying degrees of old master and incorrigible oldsters. They’re both old, they’re both extremely skilled benders, and they both say and do weird things. Yes, they have different flavors of eccentricity, but, let’s face it, they’re both pretty odd (that’s why we like ’em!).
  • Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander from Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth book series is both one of the world’s top wizards and an extremely outlandish old dude. Which is “true as toasted toads!”
  • Mama Odie from Disney’s The Princess & the Frog varies in her weirdness between humorously eccentric and grossly disturbing (why did the animators have her kiss her pet with tongue? I mean, ew). At the same time, despite being a “197-year-old blind lady,” she has some seriously powerful voodoo.

I only listed a few of each – I’m sure you can think of more because they really stick with you. I mean, how can you forget a little old lady that shoots a cooked turkey? Or an old man that looks like a strong wind can blow him over who fights off a group of young, trained thugs? No one expects old people to do stuff like that! That’s why we love these types of characters and remember them forever.

So I have 2 questions: 1. Which awesome old character is your favorite? (Mine’s my grandma) and 2. Which one do you want to be like in the nursing home?

The World’s Oldest Living Things Make Great Inspiration for Worldbuilding

Rachel Sussman’s TED talk, “The World’s Oldest Living Things,” is amazingly eye opening. I don’t know about you, but I never realized how old some plants, fungus, coral, etc. live to be. Some of them are thousands of years old! In fact, all the creatures I saw in this list were at least over 1,000. Some were over 80,000. Actually, at least 1 is over 400,000 years old.

Holy crap, that’s old!

Anything that survives that long is pretty special in my book, which makes it great fodder for writing books. Here’s the video, and the transcript is below. It’s definitely worth a look!

5 Celebrities Reading Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

Speaking of celebrities reading poetry and other literature on youtube, a lot of people seem to like to post themselves or celebrities reading Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.”

Why that poem in particular? I’m not sure. Perhaps, it’s because of the acting challenge. When so many words are made up, reading with meaning and feeling can be more difficult (how do you say that?). The trick (IMHO) is to remember that each of the nonsense words has meaning – even if you don’t know exactly what that meaning is. Assume something and go from there.

In any case, here are some famous celebrities reading, reciting, or otherwise performing “Jabberwocky” on youtube – because why not?

  1. Benedict Cumberbatch reciting “Jabberwocky”
  2. Neil Gaiman reciting “Jabberwocky”
  3. Christopher Lee reading “Jabberwocky”
  4. The Muppets performing “Jabberwocky”
  5. Ian McKellen reading “Jabberwocky”

Which is your favorite?

Celebrities Give New Life to Moby Dick

However you feel about classic literature and Moby Dick in particular, seeing Plymouth University and a group of people (celebrities included) putting hours of effort into it has to make you curious (or is it just me?). In this case, celebrities from all genres (actors and actresses, writers, directors, musicians, politicians, etc.) have joined together to record an audio book of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. You can hear a chapter read by Benedict Cumberbatch, Neil Tennant, Fiona Shaw, and many more (see the full list and links to the audio book chapters by reader at Open Culture’s “Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entirety by Benedict Cumberbatch, John Waters, Stephen Fry, Tilda Swinton, & More“)

Does that mean it’s going to be the best audio book of Moby Dick ever? Maybe. Maybe not. Some chapters will probably be better than others – being a good musician, director, prime minister, etc. doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a good voice actor. They might be, but you won’t really know until you listen.

But isn’t that the point?

The goal of this project wasn’t necessarily to make a good audio book of Moby Dick. That was probably 1 of the goals, but if it were the main goal, there’d be no real motivation to have so many different and diversely famous voice actors. Even supporting new interpretations doesn’t require celebrities. So why would Plymouth University deliberately complicate the project by trying to get so many famous people involved? Why not have their own students do it to promote student experience in performance and recording?

Well, do you think your average college student is going to be more excited about someone reading Moby Dick or Benedict Cumberbatch reading anything?

I can’t confirm this, but I have a hunch that that the people in charge of this project saw the trend of stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Neil Gaiman, and so on reading poetry and works of literature on youtube. They probably also saw the outpouring of interest as these videos were passed around facebook and other social media. Put the two facts together, and it becomes clear that the Average Joe is more interested in works of literature when read by someone famous.

So how could a university use that to its advantage?

Well, as classical literature goes, Moby Dick is a particularly imposing piece, and I don’t think many people tackle it unless they’re required to for class (and even then, most find an online summary instead). I’m picturing a professor (tweed and all), frustrated and worn down by years of students who refuse to read the novel. He or she is trying to lead a class discussion but hears only silence or statements that obviously came from cliffsnotes/sparknotes/shmoop. He or she roars a dismissal at the class, collapses at the desk, and pulls out a bottle of gin. After the third or fourth tear-diluted drink, the lightbulb flashes on – what if I get it read by celebrities? Then – then, they’ll listen!

Ok. That’s an imaginary dramatization with no known basis in fact; however, the motivation and general strategy seems plausible. By using stars as the readers, the university can pique student interest and possibly (crossed fingers) expose more students to a classical piece (that some think changed the world). By making it available free online, they could even reach people outside of a university setting: the fame of the readers could help the project spread.

And maybe those listeners will only listen to a snippet here or there – to hear the artists they like best). But maybe, they’ll listen to a whole chapter by an artist they like. Or maybe, that snippet will pull them in. Whether they listen to a line, a chapter, or the whole  book, it will be more than they probably would have been exposed to otherwise.

Now, how valuable will hearing a little snippet prove in the long run? Who knows? But as an effort to get more people interested in an intimidating work, it’s definitely a success. What classical piece do you think they should tackle next? And who should read it?

Books Can Change the World

How much of how you think was shaped by the books you’ve read? By the written word? Stories, articles, and pamphlets – how much of your history and your culture was directed by words set down years before you existed?

When I started this article, I was thinking about texts like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan or the works of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Writings that changed how people thought about government. Writings that may be the basis of your government now.

Then, I thought about how literature has been used to challenge social ideas. Like strict morality. Or slavery. Or the safety of scientific exploration. Or whether government monitoring preserves freedom. The list goes on. Books that as a whole are intended to be read for pleasure and that at the same time make people confront potential problems – or at least consider them.

And when I searched for books that changed the world, options popped up that I had forgotten to consider.

The Open Education Database’s article, “50 Books That Changed the World,” has the types of books I thought of but also religious works and scientific writings that I hadn’t thought of. I wish that the summary for each book explained a little better how that book changed the world, but some of them speak for themselves. And few would dispute their power.

That’s why when narrowed down to “10 Books That Changed the World” by The Guardian, some of the books are the same – but some are not. The same is true for Cheatsheets “The Top 25 Books That Changed the World” by Jacqueline Sahagian. If you do a Google search of books that changed the world, you’ll see post after post with some overlap and some difference. And if you read the comments, you’ll see plenty of arguments about books that were left off that list that were more important.

The one idea that they all agree on is that books have the power to change the world. It’s not a theory or a hypothesis – it’s a fact because it has already happened. Throughout our history, books have changed the world, and that means that they still can.

As a writer, that power is both thrilling and terrifying. The potential for change is in your mind, in your fingers, and in your keyboard. What if your book is the next to go on these lists?

What change will you write?