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The Problems With Sarcastic Voice

Here’s a question from reader Kathryn, one I’ve actually thought a lot about and addressed in many manuscripts:

I wanted your opinion on using the same voice throughout a MS. I have noticed with the latest two books I’ve read (by two different authors) that they use the same witty, sarcastic, always-joke-cracking voice. Even in tense parts of the story. What is your opinion of that? For me it broke character and when I am writing the harsher scenes in my book, and I feel like I am going to lose my reader.

As you readers know, there is a lot of room on shelves for sarcastic teen voices (read a previous post on the topic here). But you can’t just give readers a sarcastic, quippy voice and a character who is biting and caustic and call it a day. That’s not all there is to teen voice or teen characters. In fact, writers who think that they’ve made an instant teenager by adding one part extra sarcasm are a big pet peeve of mine.

Another pet peeve of mine is when the sarcasm comes out in inappropriate times or doesn’t feel genuine in a situation or for a character, as with the situation Kathryn is describing. I feel that voice does have to be consistent. And, yes, humor and sarcasm can come together to create a voice. But not all situations do well with humor, quips, or sarcasm.

Tense situations, scary situations, poignant situations, and some scenes actually don’t fit well with sarcasm. Why? Well, think of what sarcasm is and where it comes from.

As a teen, I was definitely sarcastic, biting, and witty. But when I think of those times when I was most sarcastic, most mean, or most joke-cracking…what was going on inside my head? I was actually using sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism, as a wall. If I was uncomfortable or feeling challenged or otherwise feeling the need to put my shields up, I’d be more sarcastic or try harder to be funny than in situations where I was comfortable (unless I was riffing with a bunch of friends and getting all riled up, of course).

For important moments in your plot, I would stay away from too much sarcasm and wit. Sarcasm drives a wedge into high stakes and deflates tension. It puts up a wall between your character and your readers. Sometimes, that’s okay. In other moments, though, you want your character to have a genuine, shields-down reaction to events. This way, those events will seem genuinely significant. If your character cracks jokes or shrugs off important stuff, your reader won’t care much about it, either.

For example, here’s some bad use of sarcasm:

My dad tells me that everyone in my family discovers some big and important power on their sixteenth birthday. It happened to Grandma and it happened to Dad. And then we’re expected to use it for good and all that junk. I’ll believe it when I see it, and so far, all I see is the great pair of Prada pumps that’s going to be my birthday present tomorrow.

As always, this is hyperbole. But you can see the problems here, right? This character is, more likely than not, about to encounter something life-changing that members of her family are concerned about. Is she scared? Probably. Should she be scared? Probably. But do we know about her fear? No, because the sarcasm is standing in the way of that, and doing a rather shallow job of showing us her true feelings. So there are high stakes in the situation, or there should be, but they don’t come across in the way it’s described. She seems like she doesn’t care, or she’s making light and fun of it. That doesn’t invite us to take it seriously, either.

In important moments — moments when the reader is supposed to care — make the character care, as well. And as every teenager will tell you, sarcasm and humor, especially at tense moments, is a self-defense system designed to scream “I don’t care!” It has its uses, but it should be used judiciously, with thought to the psychology of how real teen sarcasm works.

Finally, one last pet peeve (I know, I’m full of them today). I am cautious about too much sarcasm or biting humor because I feel like, often, it’s the writer saying “Look at me, look at me, look at me, and how funny I am and how funny my characters!” This post has dealt with authenticity and when to use sarcasm, but also when to cut back for the sake of being genuine. In the same vein, the sarcasm or humor has to be real to the character, and can’t just be the writer showing off.

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  1. Kelley York’s avatar

    Good post. I think sarcastic characters isn’t something I’ve nailed yet. Most of mine tend to be more like I was – awkward, socially inept, more the stay-quiet-and-no-one-will-notice-you type. ;) But I know this kind of voice seems to be fairly popular, so at some point I’ll try something with it.

  2. Rachel’s avatar

    Great thoughts and post. I have seen in my current WIP that using the sarcasm confused my critique partner and had her believing my character was vain and self involved when, in my head, she was insecure. I went back and took out a lot of the sarcasm and I like my character A WHOLE LOT more. But I think as a writer, it was fun to get all my witty sarcastic banter out in my first run through so now I can scale back and get to the real emotions underneath it all. Anyway, great post Mary. Lots to think about!

  3. Heidi’s avatar

    This is great! It seems like every YA book I pick up lately has the same voice. Although the witty sarcasm can be entertaining and even crucial to some books and some characters, there MUST be other voices out there.

    Thanks for your perspective!

  4. Lydia Sharp’s avatar

    Wow. So many good points made here, but I think that final one is the most powerful. There’s a difference between a good hook and the author trying too hard to get attention. There’s a difference between humor and just plain annoying.

    When I first started writing YA, I thought the viewpoint character had to have a quirky and/or sarcastic observation or comment in every other paragraph to keep the reader interested. But that’s really not the case and, like you said, it makes them appear overly shallow, which is a turn-off. It also insults teens in general, basically saying that they aren’t capable of true emotion. Quite the opposite, in fact. Teens, in my opinion, have the ability to feel more deeply and passionately than jaded adults.

    And I’m sure that’s why my favorite YA novels include emotionally well-rounded characters, aka not always sarcastic or not always headstrong or not always insecure or not always [fill in the blank stereotype].

  5. Erin Kelly’s avatar

    I recently edited a MG manuscript in which the author’s main character was full of sarcasm and wit. Instead of the character coming off as intelligent and funny, he seemed like a jerk. The novel was good in general, but one of the things I recommended is paring down the sarcasm significantly. I highlighted areas throughout the manuscript where I felt like his sarcasm came off as condescending, which ultimately made him unlikable. In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges of using sarcastic voice is that the reader interprets voice inflection in his or her own way — for some, sarcastic isn’t funny; it’s snarky. And isn’t their smart-assedness one of the most irritating things about teenagers, anyway? Used sparingly it can be funny, but if that’s the general tone, beware of having an unlikable protagonist! That’s my two cents.

  6. Kate B.’s avatar

    I found a voice with a sarcastic character and got a little stuck in that mind-set, unfortunately. Then I read SPEAK, which just knocked my socks off. The voice is so authentic and so gentle, I was inspired. I don’t know if I can manage it yet, but at least I know what I’m shooting for!

    Thank you for this reminder that it can’t just be “add sarcasm-instant teen!”.

  7. Jen Zeman’s avatar

    I agree with you when you said as a teen you would use sarcasm to cover up insecurity or fear – I was the same way. This is good for me to remember with the main character in my story. I hope it will give her more depth versus coming off as being shallow. Thanks!

  8. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    Sarcasm is so prevalent in YA, I think it’s great to do a post on where and when it’s appropriate, and when it’s baggage. Sometimes, it’s difficult to maintain that balance.

    I have to say though, I find it REALLY interesting when an incredible writer can use sarcasm in such a way that it is increasingly clear that the more a character is scared, hurt, or afraid, the sarcasm comes out as their coping mechanism. While “Supernatural” is a television series, I notice that with the character Dean Winchester, the writers put sarcasm in as his way of dealing with pain. But it doesn’t seem out of place in those serious moments, because his fear/anxiety/hurt is always there underneath the biting wit. It’s made clear, and that only makes it more heartbreaking.

    But that clarity IS difficult to maintain. It’s easy to have a character come off as unlikeable if there’s no break from the sarcasm. I’m sure there are plenty of writers trying to show off how witty they are. But with others, I always attributed the moments of inappropriate sarcasm to writers who may not necessarily know how to deal with writing heavy scenes. It’s an author’s coping mechanism, too. It’s so much easier to write a witty one-liner than it is to describe how a scene makes a character vulnerable.

    I’ve seen a reverse issue with some readers, wherein an author will write the appropriate emotional baggage to come with a sad scene (like another character’s death), and readers will review that the character spent too much time “moping”.

    Not that I’m disagreeing with your post, Mary. I am a great fan of the wit being reigned in to present a well-rounded character. I do think it’s a balance that every writer should keep in mind while writing this kind of character.

  9. Valeria’s avatar

    These are very good points. I think using sarcasm in a book is the same as using sarcasm in real life. There will be moments were you cant use sarcasm. There will be days when if you use too much of it people will want to yell, “Please take me seriously! Tell me your real opinion!” There are moments to joke and be sarcastic. And there are moments to be serious.

  10. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Um, Mary, can you give ELIZABETH MAY some kind of prize for using a SUPERNATURAL reference in her comment? Bonus props for including a Winchester Bros. anecdote.

    (Note to self: check DVR queue tonight)

    I’m not being sarcastic. Not even a little bit.

  11. Brittany’s avatar

    My pet peeve is when writers include way too many sarcastic characters in their novels. If you think about it, most people aren’t that sarcastic. They just aren’t. I’m pretty sarcastic, but I only have one friend who’s also sarcastic, and we still have different senses of humor. So too many sarcastic characters is my pet peeve.

  12. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    Glad to see I’m not the only Supernatural fan here. It’s my television crack! :D

  13. LeanneT’s avatar

    I worry about not being sarcastic, witty etc and therefore being boring for a YA reader. Do most of the YA works you read have this element?

  14. John Bladek’s avatar

    I have to agree with your assessment of sarcastic narrators in YA. I constantly scratch my head over all the writers trying to channel Holden Caulfield. Sarcasm is often a shortcut to character development. I say this even though in my middle grade novel I have a very sarcastic narrator, but it’s a humor book, and most of the narrator’s sarcasm is self depricating, which I think softens the blow. And in a humorous story sarcasm does less to cut the tension or break the tone of a scene.

  15. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Thank you Mary for your answer to my email. It really helps to know that I am on the right track. I appreciate all the other comments as well. I thought I was the only one getting bored of too much sarcasm. I also love sarcasm in its place. I loved the book BRUISER by Neil Shusterman, but again, the only problem with it (for me) was that he was still a bit sarcastic when a scene should have carried more weight. It’s confusing that way. But other than that the book was brilliantly rendered.

  16. Cat Fleming’s avatar

    Thanks for your informative post, Mary. I’ve got your book and it’s been invaluable to me. While I know that your premise is a common notion in the publishing industry, I kind of have to disagree with this one.

    I have two teenagers and a twelve year old, and while the twelve year old hasn’t picked up the sark-master way of life, my other two (one girl, one boy), live it to the full. Well, they suck it dry, actually, and wow, does it get old!

    Anyway, all their friends are like that too, it’s their operative mode of communication, and while I feel like gagging them if they utter one more stupid negative thing most days, I realize that it’s pointless, because nothing its so ingrained, nothing’s going to change it.

    I believe that in some circles (the highly intelligent sciencey crowd, for one), that no matter how tense, scary or poignant the situation, they would communicate the same way. Sark-mastery runs deep…

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