I, Crasbo: Tips On How To Write A Comic Voice
I, Crasbo: Tips On How To Write A Comic Voice
I, Crasbo is a story of mine that appears in Unthology 8, an excellent anthology of short stories. It’s about a robot butler who’s turfed out of the family estate to fend for himself in the outside world. If you’d like to read the story, and don’t want to buy the anthology, then drop me a message and I will email you a copy. Although you can still enjoy the article without it…
Where to start with voice?
I remember trying to start I, Crasbo. I was slowly spinning in my office chair, hoping, perhaps, that the centrifugal force would somehow suck the voice I needed from the ether. The character was formed in my mind – a pompous, hypocritical robot butler – but how to make him sound? How to achieve his comic voice?
Spinning around aimlessly didn’t help, so I did the next best thing, and turned to writers I admire.
Take this opening line from George Saunders’ story CommComm:
“Tuesday morning, Jillian from Disasters calls. Apparently an airman named Loolerton has poisoned a shitload of beavers. I say we don’t kill beavers, we harvest them, because otherwise they nibble through our Pollution Control Devices (P.C.D.s) and polluted water flows out of our Retention Area and into the Eisenhower Memorial Wetland, killing beavers.”
Straight away we know this is a comic story – but how?
Firstly, there’s the tone. It’s snappy, upbeat. The airman’s name – Loolerton – is fun, as are some of the word choices like ‘shitload’ and ‘nibble’. There are no down or sad words. For a quick contrast, compare that to the opening line of White Fang:
Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway.
Dark, frowned, frozen – these are down words, they invoke a certain mood. They are not the words to build the stage for a comic voice.
For a deeper discussion on tonal word choices, see my article How to Show Not Tell in Writing: 3 quick tips to make a reader love you
In an opening, the mix of pace/syntax/diction is a kind of theme music that sets up a certain expectation in the reader for what’s to come. Who after reading the opening paragraph to CommComm wouldn’t expect a fast, funny story? You’d be surprised, and not in a good way, if it developed into a kitchen sink melodrama, or a southern gothic romance.
The content too matches this tone. There’s no slow swoop of the camera across the landscape to find a main character gazing wistfully out to sea. Instead we’re thrust into a surreal Catch-22 situation where the protagonist has to cover up the accidental killing of a load of beavers by saying it was done to protect beavers. It’s absurd, and it fits. Note also that Saunders knows instinctively what all great humour writers know: he saves a smart, Orwellian punch line – killing beavers – for the very end.
But the problem with CommComm – at least for me when writing I, Crasbo – is that it’s a straight character in a funny world. I needed the opposite: a funny character in a straight world. Okay, straight-ish. Fortunately, such characters are a mainstay of popular comic culture. Think Basil Fawlty, or David Brent.
One of my favourite literary examples of this is the eponymous Timothy Cavendish from The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.
Here’s an example of the voice from very early in the story, when he takes to task some teenage girls for dropping litter:
A trio of teenettes, dressed like Prostitute Barbie, approached, drift-netting the width of the pavement. I stepped into the road to avoid collision. But as we drew level they tore wrappers off their lurid ice lollies and just dropped them. My sense of well-being was utterly V-2’d. I mean, we were level with a bin! Tim Cavendish the Disgusted Citizen exclaimed to the offenders: ‘You know, you should pick those up.’ A snorted ‘Whatchyoo gonna do ‘bou’ it?’ glanced off my back. Ruddy she-apes.
Just as with the Saunders story, the words are upbeat, the sentences, snappy – but now the viewpoint itself is also comic. The character’s witty wordplay (‘A trio of teenettes’), his cartoonish imagery (‘Prostitute Barbie’, ‘lurid ice lollies’), his delusional self-importance (“Tim Cavendish the Disgusted Citizen”) make this so. His sign off for the paragraph – “Ruddy she-apes” – is a kind of linguistic punch line that mixes his sly descriptions with the swollen sense of self that is source of his humour.
Note also, that this mix of voice and imagery is a fine example of the writer ‘showing’ the character. Again, for more details, you can refer to the show/tell article.
Which brings me back to Crasbo. Here’s the opening paragraph:
What strikes me most is not so much the pointlessness of the social event called a party, by which I mean the huddling together of humans to swap vapid words and swill dulling liquids, but that said humans are not aware of this lack of purpose. They believe it has some higher function. They think it has value in itself. This is certainly the case with my Master, Rupert Puddy, who is drunk, having asked me, his loyal Butler, Crasbo, to pour him yet another highball of gin and to bring him the bottle, which he places on the flat chrome head of DX24Ji, who is a Cleaner and not a table.
The first three sentences here are a trade off. To convey Crasbo’s personality as quickly as possible the first sentence needs to sound as puffed up as the person (robot) himself; to balance it, the next two sentences are snappy. Where possible I’ve tried to choose words that sound ‘up’, like strike, party, huddling, drunk, loyal. At the very least, there are no ‘down’ words – nothing to kill the buzz. The names – Crasbo, Rupert Puddy, even DX24Ji – are fun names.
The final image, of Rupert Puddy resting his bottle of gin on a robot’s head, is a visual pun to finish the paragraph, described by Crasbo in the same pompous, sarcastic tone that’s always getting him into trouble.
I could tell you how – but you’re going to have read the story to find out!
Good luck, and happy writing!
Got a writing question? Just ask in the comments box and I’ll get back to you.