Characterisation in Fiction

Or, Why Most Book Jesters Make Me Want To Gnaw My Arm Off

This article was written by me! Link to it, copy it, post it, quote it, do whatever you like with it, but please be kind enough to credit me (Jongleur) and include a link to my site. I'm British, so naturally this should be read in the appropriate accent.

I've been meaning for a while to write something about the portrayal of jesters in print. There have been a plethora of historical fiction books published recently which are narrated by jester characters - notably The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory, The Jester by James Patterson, and the Thirteenth Night series by Alan Gordon - and these all struck me as sharing certain characteristics. So here's a brief discussion that you might find interesting.

Now the fundamental issue that makes me want to tear off my own limbs and beat people with them is this; in order to speak in a jester's voice, you have to be a jester. A decent author who is writing a book narrated by a plumber will (I hope) do some research into plumbing. A fictional general had better know his military stuff. And a jester has to be funny.

This is where many otherwise excellent authors fall down, as far as I'm concerned; it's all very well writing a story in which your protagonist is a master of hilarity, joking and tumbling his way out of every certain-death situation in which he finds himself, but if his dialogue doesn't make the reader laugh then it isn't going to ring true. The ability to write high-quality fiction and the ability to make world-shatteringly good jokes do not often seem to coincide. As a result, many less-impressive authors seem to fall back on the old 'characterisation through reaction' trick, where every other character one meets in the book feels the sudden urge to remark, 'That Fred, he's such a funny guy!' in case the reader hadn't noticed. (1) Oops, this is historical fiction we're talking about. 'Thatte Fredericke, verily is he a master of witte! Forsooth!'

One of the major problems perhaps is that really good jokes tend to require context, lead-up, background. Honestly, how many two-line, verbal, question-and-answer punchline jokes have ever made you burst out laughing? As opposed to making you chuckle, or groan. And yet many authors seem quite convinced that a jester's job is to sit quietly in the corner until prodded, whereupon he pops up, makes a few random quips and disappears again. Maybe that is, or was, a jester's job; I don't believe for a second that that's how jesters really used to interact with their employers, but I'm not here to comment on accuracy. My point is, it's a hell of a lot harder to make a guy funny when he's making Christmas-cracker jokes, than when he's satirising the world around him; a world which the author has gone to all that trouble to create for you.

Then there's the painful plot-stretching, where the lack of humour I've been whinging about is made even worse when the writer hangs the whole storyline on it. A stinker of a plot which appears again and again in jester stories is the one where the character is not a jester at all to start with; but, faced with certain death, suddenly discovers that his/her desperate protest or last-minute black humour is the funniest thing the king/evil tyrant/Grand Vizier has ever heard, and is instantly saved and promoted to court jester. The desperate protest is never funny. I have never read an exception to this rule. If your suspension of disbelief can survive that one, you're doing better than I am.

All, however, is not lost. Since very few authors are like Shakespeare, and can be funny and clever at the same time, there are a number of different ways to deal with the problem. One, of them, usefully enough, is historical accuracy.

A jest's prosperity lies in the ear
Of him that hears it, never in the tongue
Of him that makes it.
William Shakespeare, Love's Labor's Lost

The simple fact is, the sense of humour of a modern person (yes, even your dad after two beers) is distinctly more refined than that of the Middle Ages. There certainly was a place for the witty jester who played with word games and subtle satire, but for every one of those there were fifty others who pulled each others' trousers down for laughs. Many 'court fools' were selected not for their wit but because of some physical deformity which was thought to be amusing at the time.

You can therefore write a jester whose jokes aren't funny to the modern ear, and still claim good writing. A great example of this is Philippa Gregory's The Queen's Fool, in which the protagonist is a jester. It also features Will Somers, a real historical jester to several Tudor monarchs and by all accounts a Rather Nice Bloke. (2) In this book the issue is very well-handled; Somers spends a lot of his time buffooning, interspersed with the occasional genuinely witty observation, and the protagonist, who isn't meant to be naturally funny, isn't. As a result the author doesn't overreach, both characters are very plausible, and nobody's credulity gets stretched too far.

The other two books I've mentioned take alternative approaches; the Thirteenth Night series relies on the straightforward approach, whereby the jester is witty and funny on his own merits. To his credit, Gordon doesn't make his narrator's audience fall about and wet themselves laughing while the reader is beating their head against the nearest solid object. He also includes a lot of internal narrator monologue about how simple the peasant villagers are for laughing at whichever joke he's just made, by way of emphasising the contrast between the jester's inherent wit and the low humour of his audience. However, I do feel that this one suffers from the basic problem of not all the jokes being funny. The narrator is a genius jester and the author, whatever his other excellent attributes, is not.

And finally, The Jester by James Patterson. Just a humble suggestion; if you ever feel the urge to get a large tattoo across your face, 'DON'T READ THE JESTER BY JAMES PATTERSON' would be an excellent choice. This has to be one of the most irritating, cliched, badly-written books I have ever read, and judging by the vast number of shiny hardback copies available for 20p at my local charity shop I'm not the only one who thinks so. In exchange for nearly three irreplaceable hours of my life I got a moronic plotline which includes every single one of the bad writing examples mentioned above and a whole load of new ones besides; a protagonist who wouldn't have made it in a comedy club for protozoa; and more historical inaccuracies than my half-remembered school history can shake a stick at.

*cough* Rant over. Bitter, seething resentment crushed back into the dark pits of my mind until next time.

So, I think what I'm trying to say is this: writing jesters is hard. Many authors overreach themselves by writing a character who's funnier than they are, and render their stories implausible in the process. The good ones write witty but realistic jesters and don't get trapped by their own plotlines. The truly great ones (3) write great jesters because they are great jesters, and those jokes don't fall flat.

(1) As a non-jester-related example of this bad writing trick, see the Da Vinci Code, where the book opens with the indescribably bland hero being named 'Most Intriguing Man in America' by Time Magazine. He then goes on to do absolutely nothing intriguing for several hundred pages of blandness. In the film version, he is going to be played by Tom Hanks. I rest my case.

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(2) Will Somers, the 'Poor Man's Friend', was one of the fortunate few who could tell Henry VIII (never a very safe guy to be around) things he didn't want to hear about corruption and injustice. He was also generous with his own cash, hence the nickname. You can read a little bit about him on my Jesters in Legend and Reality page here.

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(3) Unsurprisingly I'm a little short of examples here. I don't imagine many people would disagree with my nomination of Shakespeare, a great jester in his own right and a writer of great jesters. (And, like a real jester, not averse to a bit of tasteless buffoonery when his audience required.) By way of a recent example (and a bit more controversially), I would also nominate the wonderful Terry Pratchett, a man with an astonishing ability to be funny and clever at the same time.

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