With a smirk of derision…
His eyebrows rose at her and he gave a humorless laugh…
He stared arrogantly down at me, a smirk plastered across his face.
He smiled in scorn as he said this.
…a sardonic smile played over his generous, well-formed lips and highlighted the strength of his jaw.
He smiled at her with disdain.
He looked at her with a taunting smirk.
….her gaze swept the room and finally encountered [his] lazy, faintly mocking smile.
Romantic heroes eh? Even when they are smiling and laughing, it’s with a self-satisfied smirk, a sneer, or a scornful curl of the lips, contemptuous of all around them. They don’t seem to enjoy themselves much. Yes, it has become a cliché – though the above examples are taken from actual, recent romantic fiction (characters’ names removed to protect the innocent). Yet it always made me wonder, reading those slushy old Mills & Boon romances as a kid when I was at my Gran’s, is that really attractive? A man who mocks and derides those about him?
Is it done to demonstrate some form of alpha-male superiority, depicting a man who derives amusement from the mediocrity of others? Or perhaps showing a stern man is meant to signify thoughtfulness, someone who will take his responsibilities seriously, including looking after ‘his woman’.
It’s not like that in real life, surely? Antiquated power balances aside, what about that other supposed truism, and mainstay of lonely-hearts ads, the search for a partner with a GSOH – good sense of humour? Psychologists may debate why we humans have a sense of humour – is it for the release of excess energy? A social bonding mechanism? A means to display open-handed lack of aggression? But it is an observable phenomenon; it is universal; and I’ll bet that most of us think it an important plank in our relationships.
The science bit
In their book Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love (2013), authors Geher and Kaufman considered issues of human mating and mating rituals, including the role of humour. Research indicates that, although people differ in what they understand by a “good sense of humor” in a potential partner, both men and women believe it an important quality. One subtle but revealing suggested difference is that women like men who make them laugh, whereas men are attracted to women who laugh – presumably at their (men’s) jokes. A more recent study reported on the LiveScience site seems to support this, undertaken by Daniel Doerksen on a group of 50 female and 50 male speed-daters in Canada. Broadly speaking, the more humorous a date found a partner, the higher that person’s attractiveness ratings, the study found. Though again, humour increased men’s attractiveness to women more than it enhanced women’s attractiveness to men.
Hm. Do men like women to make the jokes, be ‘funnier than them’, or even ‘find women funny’ at all? That’s a whole other contentious topic. And it’s not made clear how that dynamic supposedly works in homosexual relationships. Still, the studies do highlight the importance of humour in connecting to others, including sexually.
Last year I returned from holiday having read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend ‘Neapolitan’ quartet whilst there – they are utterly fabulous, though intense, so probably a mistake to have gorged on them back to back. Anyway, in those books, the main character is always having penetrating philosophical discussions with her partners – helping a lover to re-write an academic paper here, holding an intellectual dinner-party there. The TV never goes on, not as much as a high-minded documentary. It’s enough to make one feel inadequate. On the way home, my ex picked up the kids and me from the airport and we fell easily into silly joking banter. And I realised what was ‘wrong’ or perhaps ‘missing’ in the relationships I’d just read about – having a laugh. Without it they felt a bit – stark.
Jumping your funny bones
Oh I know, it’s a hard thing to depict in a novel or story. Not as if people tend to stand around self-consciously cracking one liners in daily conversation. And humour is so personal. A lot of it between couples, as in families, is based on shared anecdotes, ‘in-jokes’ that no one else would get, intimate and exclusive. I know a couple who both fall about at the word ‘parcel’ – to everyone else’s bafflement.
Also, of course, humour can upset the balance of a novel. It doesn’t align easily to certain genres. Elena Ferrante’s work, for instance, is hard to categorise (and why would you?), but it is ‘literary’, with a stylistic intensity. Romances, too, carry expectations; they will generally feature a ‘crisis’, for example, a dramatic turning point that imperils our lovers’ permanent union. So, not a non-stop series of giggles then.
Still, there is such a thing as light relief (as well as sexual relief). And you do need to show the ways in which your couples are attractive – hopefully beyond their stunning looks. So I cannot imagine writing a love interest that did not have a sense of humour. At least somehow, somewhere inside them.
It is possible, I think, to show this in writing, without shoe-horning in a few lame one-liners or, cringingly, telling readers a character is funny without backing up that claim. It’s not necessarily about making your reader laugh – though you may make them smile with recognition, but rather showing the pleasure characters take in one another. It can be there in description, lingering over the comedy of a situation, perhaps when a character has made themselves look a little ridiculous and can react by laughing at themselves. In your word choice, such as fast-moving action verbs that show a character wince, tiptoe, stumble, shuffle, totter, careen; exaggerated movements to show someone in a bizarre situation, or deliberately clowning around. Use of slang to lighten up their speech. Or use of figures of speech, metaphor and simile to conjure up an absurd or comedic image. Your adjectives may be incongruous, as with a character who sings in a wobbling contralto, or executes an impressive belly-flop into a pool.
Or perhaps simply showing your characters in situations that are universally recognisable, sharing an anecdote, displaying a bit (though not too much) self-deprecation, or playing the fool in a way that amuses the other.
Of course the examples at the top of this post are pretty much passé. Romance writing has largely updated itself to reflect the modern world, and we more often (though far from always) see that reflected in equality between male and female couples in novels.
Could it be – or am I going too far now – that we might see our ‘heroine’ making our ‘hero’ laugh on the page one day?
Geher, S. and S.B. Kaufman (2013) Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating, and Love. Oxford: OUP. Greengross, G. (2014) ‘Male Production of Humor Produced by Sexually Selected Psychological Adaptations’ in Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Sexual Psychology and Behavior (pp.173-196). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283486394_Male_Production_of_Humor_Produced_by_Sexually_Selected_Psychological_Adaptations. Retrieved 07 June 0218. Miller S.G. (August 2017) Funny Guy Gets the Girl: How humor makes you more attractive. On LiveScience.come. https://www.livescience.com/60060-humor-increases-attractiveness.html. Retrieved 07 June 2018.