Everyone loves a sarcastic character, right? At least it seems that way, from the view of a reader and a friend of many writers. There’s not a single writer I know well who doesn’t have a sarcastic character. They’re occasionally rebellious, usually called “adorable” by their author, and is full of enough snark and dripping, biting phrases to fill pages of dark satire.
They can be thrown into any genre, with any plot and supporting cast. Often times, the very point of the book seems to be to show off that hard-hearted piece of brilliant sarcasm.
There are benefits to sarcastic characters, and there are weaknesses. Dozens and dozens of weaknesses. I’m not sure which outweighs which, and I’m not here to tell you. Because – unlike many people seem to think – the story will determine whether that sarcasm actually fits.
Today, however, I’d like to examine one benefit, one weakness, and then a few ways to actually write sarcasm well.
In This Corner: Pros
Who reads books, anyway? A lot of people read books, people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds and personalities. To make a generalization, however, I like to think that people who read are the people who enjoy story and enjoy perspective.
One common theme among people who read is this (possibly) hidden side: this desire to be as loud as possible and never shut up about what they’re reading. I know a few people who don’t hide this desire, and they’re fantastic. And there’s me, who would rather sit quietly in this dimly lit room and tell you guys about it instead, because communication through text is easy. I can spend an entire week preparing this blog post, if I want to.
That desire to be loud is oft accompanied by a desire to find characters like us.
Which personality desires to be loud and usually isn’t?
Of course, there are many characters like that, but the sarcastic character reveals this desire the most clearly. When they say something aloud, they tend to mean something completely different. They give the reader far more thoughts than any other kind of character, and these thoughts are riddled with the loud, clever phrases that the reader wishes they could shout in the middle of a bustling supermarket.
Sarcastic characters are easy to connect with. They show a side of us that we like more than we’d be willing to admit, and they’re rarely shown in a bad light. See, sarcasm can hurt. Very easily. It can be hard to catch, sometimes, and the sarcastic people can often go out of their way to make sure you and I realize that we’re stupid for not catching the sarcasm. I know, I’ve done it before (and I’m not proud of it… there, proof I’m not perfect). But these characters? They show us how sarcasm can be excellent, how good things can result.
When the hero uses sarcasm to connect with their Ally and sass-off the Villain, we cheer. Because the thing we want to be is shown as a positive.
Connection with your character is a serious pro, one that can’t be ignored.
And In This Corner: Cons
Every story element has a downside. There’s just no perfect “facet” you can apply to your novel and make it perfect in every way.
Sarcasm does have its downsides. Many of them, enough that I often avoid the sarcastic characters. I could point at the cliché-ness of sarcasm [like I said above, everyone has a sarcastic character], but instead I want to focus on this: sarcasm is a Character Mask that never comes off.
A while back I talked about Character Masks, how they hide the true person, the true emotions, the true actions. Sarcasm – almost every time – is a Character Mask. People who use sarcasm rarely do it for sarcasm’s sake. They do it to hide their real words (because, by definition, sarcasm is stating something contrary to what you mean), to put on a face that people want. Sure, sarcasm can be used purely for itself, as a joke or jib at yourself, but that’s the exception.
Every Character Mask has to be revealed for what it is. You can’t leave a Mask unrevealed; otherwise your reader won’t know it’s a Mask at all. They’ll think it’s the real thing. The real deal, the combo meal with the discount, the shooting star that makes wishes come true.
Sarcasm, however, never leaves. It’s not supposed it. Most of the time, sarcasm is the defining trait of the character who possesses all that snark and sass. When an author creates a character with sarcastic tendencies, it’s for the quirk, for the element of “hip”. Sarcastic characters are cool, and they’re funny, and they’re relatable. A sarcastic character remains a sarcastic character from page one to the page marked “the end”.
But sarcasm is never a thing for itself. Not in writing, not in good story, not in real life. Sarcasm is meant to be peeled away, to reveal something deeper.
It’s not meant to be a character trait, it’s a Mask.
I don’t want to discourage the writing of good sarcastic characters. That’s not the point here. I’d rather a million well-written sarcastic characters to having zero sarcastic characters. There are, however, many ways to write a poor sarcastic character. And that’s not good.
So how do we write good sarcastic characters?
1. Show the sarcasm on page one. If you wait to tell us that this character is sarcastic, it will come off as jerking, contrary to character, and poor. No matter if you write it well after, your reader will be unsettled by this sudden sarcasm. Why? Because sarcasm is a mask, and a character that puts on a mask in chapter two is jarring. We know the mask is fake, so why is it suddenly being put on? We’ve already seen the real thing.
2. Let sarcasm fill the narrative, not the thoughts. Generally, I don’t like thoughts that aren’t part of the narrative. It’s more of a personal opinion, but I just… don’t like them. If you want to write that way, fine. Do it. It’s worked for author after author before you, it ought to work for you, too. Sarcasm, however, should be more than thoughts. If your character has a lot of sassy thoughts, that doesn’t mean anything to me. That’s not real sarcasm, that’s called inner voice. We all have one of those, and it’s not real sarcasm. True sarcasm comes out.
But not all of it is in the dialogue. Characters can have sarcastic actions, sarcastic emotions, and you can even describe things with sarcasm. When you let the sarcasm invade the descriptions, you know the reader will be enveloped in it. True sarcasm doesn’t just stop with eye-rolling thoughts and biting dialogue.
3. Let the Mask come off. Just like my earlier post about Character Masks, you need to let that Mask come off. Your reader needs to know that this sarcasm isn’t the true emotion. It’s a layer of protection, a way for your character to be safe. That’s real. That’s powerful.
Sarcasm can be a strong element in any story. It can propel the narrative, it can strengthen the prose, it can bring your characters to life. But it can also be a weakness, an infection spreading through your novel until it feels and tastes like a poorly brewed cup of coffee: bitter, waiting to be spit back into the cup.
Which would you rather your story be like?