A while ago now, before the King of England was crowned, his mother, the Queen, passed away. And on that historic occasion, a great many anecdotes were shared about her lengthy and momentous life. I loved the pictures of her as a princess in a mechanic's suit, wrench in hand, working on jeeps during the war. But what really caught my ear were the flashes of good humor that smoothed over so many an awkward moment. She was a diplomat with a twinkle in her eye. And that quality can be a wonderful one to give to your characters when you're writing. Humor helps deal with tense situations and enlivens their dialog, while deepening readers’ affection for your protagonist.
And the secret to the Queen's wit, and your protagonist's, is… Drumroll… To give your leading character an unflappable, wry sense of humor, by which they turn confrontations and awkward moments into opportunities to have a little harmless fun and defuse the situation. Much better than taking offense or harboring resentments.
The Queen is dead, long live the Queen’s humor! One can only hope to write scenes as witty as hers often were.
Take this wonderful anecdote retold in Reuters news service:
The monarch was out in the hills near her Scottish castle at Balmoral when two U.S. tourists on a walking holiday approached and one of them engaged her in conversation, said former royal protection officer Richard Griffin, known as Dick. The hiker asked the queen where she lived, so she said London, adding that she had a holiday home just over the hill and had been visiting the area for more than 80 years since she was a little girl. She did not say she was referring to Balmoral.
Aware that the castle was in the vicinity, the hiker then asked her if she had ever met the queen, Griffin said.
“Quick as a flash she said: ‘I haven’t, but Dick here meets her regularly’,” Griffin recounted.
The hiker then asked Griffin what the monarch was like in person.
“I said ‘oh, she can be very cantankerous at times, but she’s got a lovely sense of humor’,” Griffin said.
Delighted, the hiker then put his arm around Griffin’s shoulder and asked if he could have a picture of the two of them together.
“Before I could see what was happening, he gets his camera and gives it to the queen and says ‘can you take a picture of us?’”
The queen obliged, and then Griffin took the camera and took a picture of her with the pair of hikers.
Later, Griffin said, the queen told him: “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he shows those photographs to friends in America and someone tells him who I am.” (Reuters Staff, Sept. 8)
Another awkward moment occurred when she was hosted by President George W. Bush in 2007, as recounted by USA Today:
“The American people are proud to welcome your majesty back to the United States, a nation you’ve come to know very well,” he said. “After all, you’ve dined with 10 U.S. presidents. You’ve helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17…” Realizing his blunder, he quickly corrected himself. “In 1976,” he said.
The damage was already done. Bush awkwardly glanced over at the queen, who didn’t seem amused. “She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child,” he said as the crowd roared.
But the queen had the last laugh. At a formal dinner at the British ambassador’s residence later that night, the queen made fun of Bush’s blunder during her formal toast to the president. Grinning, she joked, “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, 'When I was here in 1776...'" (USA Today, Sept. 10.)
Scenes like these reflect a rare combination of humorous intelligence and poise. I’d like to think we writers can take inspiration from such moments and try to imbue our leading characters with wit and a sense of forgiveness, qualities that seem sadly lacking in the news, and the nation, today. In fact, it makes for a great writing exercise to try to put your protagonist into an uncomfortable situation and have them get out of it with their wit. If you teach writing, try assigning this exercise in class, and see who comes up with something that makes everyone laugh so loudly you worry the Principal will stick their head in the classroom to find out what's going on.
Alex Hiam, the author of Silent Lee and the Side Door Key, teaches creative writing and writes fantasy adventure stories for teens and tweens from his home in the Brattleboro area of Vermont. Available through your local bookstore or Amazon.