We may think of ‘banter’ as intrinsically humorous and it can be but just because characters don’t have a funny relationship doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a back and forth. They could be characters that the read knows hate each other but they have to make the appearance of liking each other which creates a back-and-forth where they appear to be saying nice things but underneath they’re saying ‘I loathe you’, which can be funny, though they’re obviously not trying to be.
Back-and-forth or banter isn’t purely about the jokes it’s about the relationship between the characters, their history and their way of speaking, or not speaking to each other. Some people can communicate things between each other with looks, the classic example would be where one character does something foolish and two other characters just look at each other. It’s a cliché but it’s a cliché because people do it. This non-verbal communication is also important when we’re building banter between characters because, as I’ve said in other articles, what people do can contradict what they’re saying or they can say things without them saying anything.
With this in mind it can help to try and consider the moments when our characters don’t need to say anything. If one character says something another disagrees with does the other character need to say ‘I don’t agree with that’, have a cutting remark or simply look at them with an are-you-serious expression? The old adage is that less is more and sometimes to make our banter better we actually have to cut some of it out, which can be difficult.
On the flipside there are times when we’re editing when we might find we need to add banter, perhaps to build the sense of those relationships or because there’s a situation where one character speaks and it makes so no sense for the other character not to reply. We may even have characters that deliberately bait each other to make them say things and when doesn’t reply it’s a sign of something having gone wrong.
When building this back-and-forth we also have to consider how far it would go. We may have two characters who always have the appearance of insulting each other but there are places they wouldn’t go with it. Perhaps despite the apparent insults they’re both aware of each other’s weaknesses and so those are off-limits. Or there may be jokes that characters make but they know when to back off or apologise if they go too far.
This plays into the previous idea of individualising speech based on what character’s say because for successful banter to work it has to follow the rules the characters set for it. It would be conspicuous out of the rules of the back-and-forth if the two characters who are forced to be nice to each other suddenly say, ‘I bloody hate you’. If we do this, which would presumably break the banter, it would require a purpose in the story.
Of course, there’s nothing to say that just because the banter is broken it can’t resume as a sign that the relationship is on the mend later on in the story.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.