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On Mining Humor From Family Dynamics in Your Writing

Humor often stems from things that are not humorous. Can you mine your family's dynamics for inspiration? Author Jesse Q. Sutanto believes you can, and gives you her top 3 tips for doing so.
On Mining Humor From Family Dynamics in Your Writing

Humor often stems from things that are not humorous. In Dial A for Aunties, none of the characters in my book finds their situation—having to hide a dead body while catering to a huge wedding—humorous, but we as readers find it hilarious. Meddy, the main character, does not find her mother and aunts’ feuds funny. But again, it’s what we readers want. The more drama, the more comedy. Here are my top tips on how to extract the humor from family dynamics.

(Jesse Q. Sutanto: On Accidental Murder and Meddlesome Families)

How to Mine Humor From Family Dynamics in Your Writing

1. Identify the feuds

Remember that drama means a treasure trove for humorous interactions. New drama is great, but old drama is even better. Think of the history between your characters. The “enemies to lovers” trope is so good precisely because it relies on a rich and complicated history between the characters. Apply that your main character’s family members—why does your MC’s mother hate her second sister? What happened in their past to make them have an ongoing feud? And how does it affect their present-day interactions? You don’t need to include everything in the book, but it’s useful to have it at the back of your mind to inform yourself on how these characters would interact with each other.

2. Identify the family hierarchy

Every family has its own hierarchy. This can be shaped by cultural norms or by wealth, age, gender, and so on. Whatever it is, identify it. Have a clear idea of how each character falls within the hierarchy, and ask yourself: is this character happy with their position in the family hierarchy? And if not, what are they doing to try and change the hierarchy, and how do the other characters react to it? For example, in Dial A for Aunties, the hierarchy is defined by age, so Big Aunt is the leader of the family, followed by Second Aunt, then Third Aunt, and so on. The main character, who is the youngest, has the least say. This hierarchical equation leads to a lot of trouble, especially because Second Aunt, who is vying for Big Aunt’s position as the matriarch, makes decisions to undermine Big Aunt, which ultimately causes more problems for the main character.

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Dial A for Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto

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The family hierarchy is a beautiful thing I always refer back to when I feel like a scene needs more tension or humor or if I need to figure out how a certain character would react. Also, how important is the family hierarchy to your characters? In Dial A for Aunties, the hierarchy is so important that the main character finds herself having to do things like listening to her elders despite her common sense telling her to do something different, which of course leads to more disasters and therefore even more comedy.

3. Pit them against each other!

Ma can’t stand Fourth Aunt? Great. Put them in a room with each other and blow up one of their dark secrets! Second Aunt has always longed to be the matriarch, but Big Aunt is in the way? Put them in a position where people have to vote between Big Aunt vs. Second Aunt’s idea! Whatever skeletons you’ve come up with for your character’s family, parade them out at the most inopportune time.

Just remember that in all this, you need to have a touchstone, a character who is the voice of reason that your readers can relate to. This character’s job is to point out how ridiculous the family is being so that your reader doesn’t get too frustrated by the antics that your characters pull. In Dial A for Aunties, that touchstone is the main character, who is always trying to mediate between her mother and aunts (who then ignore her and cause havoc anyway). This is also a great way of inserting humor because the over-the-top antics of side characters work really well when juxtaposed with the normalcy of the main character. Think of Jane’s over-the-top family in Jane the Virgin. All of the side characters are delightfully zany, whereas Jane is relatively average when compared to the rest of them. She’s placed in an extraordinary situation, but on her own, she is a pretty ordinary, albeit very likable, character.

I hope this shines a light on mining humor from family dynamics, and honestly, I think the best drama is family drama!

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