Humor and what readers know

“For example, let’s say you have a main character whose feelings can be hurt if he’s spoken to sharply—unlike you, ha-ha-ha. Say he is also a little like you in the sense that when he gets a bit depressed or tense, he heads for a rib joint to eat a pound of burned, fatty meat. So he is perhaps also a little overweight—not that you are overweight. I’m sure your weight is just fine. Anyway, let’s make him someone who works in an office, someone who’s been pampered—what could he say that lets us see this?”

from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott

Lots of interesting things going on in these sentences. Humor is one of them. The suddenness, the surprising transitions might be part of this: “spoken to sharply–unlike you, ha-ha-ha,” for example, but also the end of the sentence after the next one: “not that your are overweight.” The sentence after that, “I’m sure your weight is just fine,” protests too much, as Shakespeare might say.

The use of second person and the distancing effect (“This ‘you’ is not me. Oh, no, no, no. Not me”) associated with it gives readers room to laugh, a bit, at how autobiographical a main character might be. At the same time, the persona doubles-down on the connection between the reader and the main character: “Say he is also a little like you . . . .” Readers can laugh at the autobiographical connection while knowing, to an extent, of its connection to them, humans generally, and Lamott’s persona.

The last phrase of the last sentence is a question, but one that the example before it answers. The persona is saying things that let the reader know the hypothetical main character is pampered, overweight, eats when depressed, and sensitive. Subtle and effective.

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