Skip to main content

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

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

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!

Writer's Digest May/June 2021 Cover Reveal

Every issue of Writer’s Digest is devoted to helping writers develop their craft and offering expert advice on how to get published. This magazine is full of pertinent tips on writing queries, writers' rights, new markets, submission guidelines, and competitions.

Subscribe today!

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

8 Things Writers Should Know About Tattoos

Tattoos and their artists can reveal interesting details about your characters and offer historical context. Here, author June Gervais shares 8 things writers should know about tattoos.

Tyler Moss | Reporting Through Lens of Social Justice

Writing Through the Lens of Social Justice

WD Editor-at-Large Tyler Moss makes the case for reporting on issues of social justice in freelance writing—no matter the topic in this article from the July/August 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Intentional Trail

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character leave clues for people to find them.

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Sharon Maas: On Books Finding the Right Time

Author Sharon Maas discusses the 20-year process of writing and publishing her new historical fiction novel, The Girl from Jonestown.

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

6 Steps to Becoming a Good Literary Citizen

While the writing process may be an independent venture, the literary community at large is full of writers who need and want your support as much as you need and want theirs. Here, author Aileen Weintraub shares 6 steps in becoming a good literary citizen.

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Daniel Paisner: On the Pursuit of a Creative Life

Journalist and author Daniel Paisner discusses the process of writing his new literary fiction novel, Balloon Dog.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 614

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a summer poem.

Give Your Characters a Psych Eval

Give Your Fictional Characters a Psych Eval

TV writer, producer, and novelist Joshua Senter explains why characters can do absolutely anything, but it's important to give them a psych eval to understand what can lead them there.

Writer's Digest Presents podcast image

Writer's Digest Presents: Vacation Reads (Podcast, Episode 6)

In the sixth episode of the Writer's Digest Presents podcast, we talk about what makes for a good vacation read, plus a conversation with authors Steven Rowley and Jessica Strawser and our first ever WD Book Club selection from debut author Grace D. Li.