SERIES: How to Write a Snarky Character
If you’re a writer and I tell you something like, “it’s important to understand one’s characters,” I wouldn’t blame you for rolling your eyes.
“Well, thanks, Ari,” you say. “I’ll just stow that tidbit away for—oh wait, look, it’s already there in my brain. Hell, I long-term potentiated that bitch years ago.”
That may well be true. (My my, dear readers and raptors, what sharp tongues you have! :D) That said, I think this mandate is doubly-important with snarky characters, because otherwise they have the unfortunate tendency to seem…well, like assholes. I mean, it’s not that they can’t be assholes. By all means, make them assholes if that’s what you want them to be. But ideally they should be more than just talking heads for displaying your razor-sharp wit to the world.
So what are some of the factors that drive a character to snark? Let’s break it down into three basic parts:
FACTOR ONE: Attitude from the Inside Out
Attitude often equals snark in popular culture. But for the purposes of this post, we’re not actually talking about ‘tude in the traditional sense of “answering back and not giving a gerbil’s rear end about what people think of you”. What I mean when I talk about the attitude of snark is that snarky characters tend to have a different worldview than the other characters in a story. In some way or another, a snarker is usually an outsider.
What this doesn’t mean: that the snarky character has to be lonely, or dark and mysterious (though those are some common types of snarkers).
What it does mean: that the way the snarker views the world on an internal level needs to be different from what s/he perceives as the norm.
Not quite sure what I’m talking about? Here’s a metaphor that might make it clearer: As you may or may not know, in The Wizard of Oz, all people in the Emerald City wear green-tinted glasses at all times. Supposedly, this is to protect their eyes from the glory of the city—but really it’s because the Emerald City isn’t emerald at all. (I imagine most of them probably know this on some level.)
Suppose a character in this world had her glasses put on slightly askew as a child, and they’ve never really fit ever since. As a result, she’s been able to see the non-Emerald-ness of the Emerald City for much of her life and simply can’t understand why everyone insists on fooling themselves and others into pretending the city is green. Anyone seeing her wouldn’t mark her as an outsider. Perhaps she lives a fairly normal, happy life in the Emerald City. But when she hears people exclaiming over the gorgeous, viridescent cityscape, she can’t help but feel utterly exasperated.
Thus: she snarks.
This is what I mean when I talk about an outsider attitude. Snarky comments often come from a place of annoyance or frustration (from the very mild to the rather extreme), and that place of annoyance comes from a feeling that not only is someone seeing the world differently from you, but they’re also being stupid about it. Hence, it’s this outsider’s attitude (held internally) that leads to snarking.
FACTOR TWO: KISS (Keep it Stupid, Stupid)
If I wanted to boil everything in this post down to one sentence, it would be this: characters are usually snarky in response to perceived stupidity. Or if you’re of a more mathematical mind, this:
S = D + F (where S represents snark levels, D represents inescapable dumbness, and F represents a snarker’s frustration)
That’s it. That’s really it. The snarker in question can’t escape the stupid, and since there’s no other outlet for him/her to deal with it, out comes the sarcasm. However, there are a couple of important things to note here:
- Perceived stupidity is not the same as actual stupidity. We’re looking at this from the perspective of the snarky character, so keep in mind that his/her personal history and opinions are going to affect what sorts of things can be zinger-targets. You and the other characters may disagree with the snarker, but for the purposes of writing him/her, you need to see it through the snarker’s eyes.
- I’m using the words “stupidity/dumbness” to describe the things that set off a snarky comment, but the truth of the matter is that you could just as easily substitute a gentle word like “silliness” or a powerful phrase like “mind-numbing idiocy”. “Stupidity” is a middle ground. But it’s important to remember that just because a snarker thinks that someone is being stupid does not mean that the snarker actually believes that other person to be stupid. Similarly to what I mentioned before, it’s the distinction between being silly and doing something silly. We make fun of our friends when they do something silly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we think they’re idiots.
An example of frustration-at-a-friend’s-stupidity from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (after Hermione has just explained the wide range of conflicting feelings that Cho Chang is probably experiencing upon kissing Harry):
A slightly stunned silence greeted the end of this speech, then Ron said, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”
“Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have,” said Hermione nastily, picking up her quill again.
FACTOR THREE: Look, Guys! I Made a Funny!
Let’s be honest, here: most of us want to write snarky characters because we like snarky characters.
Why? Well, they’re funny! Those zinging one-liners make us laugh at their cleverness (or chuckle while we wince at their audacity). And although frustration is often a motivation for snarkers, the desire to amuse isn’t always that far behind it. Sometimes the snarker only wants to entertain him/herself (e.g. when the snark appears in narration). Sometimes there’s an audience for the humor. In any circumstance, when a snarker wants to be funny, remember that the comments still spring from the outsider-attitude of the snarker and may still draw upon a minor frustration—but usually said comments will be exaggerated for humorous effect.
FACTOR FOUR: Raise Shields, Fire Phasers
It may be a bit of a stereotype for a snarker, but like all stereotypes there’s an element of truth to it: snark can serve as a defense mechanism and a weapon in a variety of social interactions. This includes everything from Beatrice and Benedick’s “merry war” to defenses born from deep pain, like Melinda Sordino’s silent observations about high school and the people in it. Whether the battle is with another person or with one’s own mind, snarkers can and do use their words as weapons, often in combination with Factors 1-3.
But how does one create snarky comments, and how does one know when to deploy them? Keep your eyes peeled for Part II and Part III (coming soon to a fuzzy blog near you)!