Character Development: Let’s Talk Snark

Snark can be a great tool in your author’s dialogue box. It can be wielded well and when used well it can be responsible for creating some solid heroes and villains. So, if it sounds like I’m bashing snark, well, I’m not. I’m a fan of snark and of sass, and I enjoy heroes with a healthy dose of sarcastic wit.

But, snark comes with it’s downsides. It’s not appropriate for all situations and used in the wrong ones, it can actually be very damaging to both the tension and the story. Snark can damage the threat level of your bad guys, it can weaken and degrade your minor characters, especially your protagonist’s relationship with them (if they’re your snarker). It can be used in situations where being snarky is senseless, useless, and even stupid. While this isn’t a bad thing on it’s own, it can be very good if that’s the author’s intention in the scene, when the senseless stupid snark is the means of the character achieving what they were after in a situation where such snark would usually be detrimental or downright suicidal, it’s generally very damaging to characters, tension, plot, and the overarching story.

So, let’s talk snark:

1) Know who your character is snarking at:

If you want to prove your character is intelligent (or that they’re self-destructive), they need to be capable of assessing the situation and moderating their behavior appropriately. It’s one thing to be snarky to a friend or someone your character knows well. It’s quite another for them to be snarking off at an authority figure, or any character who is in a position of power that is greater than the character’s own. It’s especially bad if that authority figure is someone the character has come to and needs assistance or permission from. (Like in Ilona Andrews’ Magic Bites, where her bounty hunter/mercenary protagonist got snarky while trying to convince the head of the area’s Magical Police Force to let her assist their investigation into the death of her mentor.)

It’s one thing to have a problem with authority, it’s another when the character is actually actively sabotaging their own efforts and the author doesn’t realize it. Think about this:

2) Snark is a defensive mechanism: snark is a defensive mechanism used to drive other people away from a character. Unlike other forms of humor, it requires making someone else look stupid to be successful. Someone’s going to have to be the butt of the joke, someone’s going to have to look bad for the protagonist to look good. Most people, especially when they are in the room to hear it aren’t going to be happy. A character whose authority relies on maintaining control of the situation and being in charge, isn’t going to be very happy when they’re mocked to their face. If they’re someone tolerant, they’ll just be more likely to say: “lol no”, when the protagonist comes calling. If they’re someone like the local crime boss, they’ll have to retaliate. Let’s just say, I hope the protagonist enjoys having all their teeth pulled with a pair of rusty pliers.

3) Snark is a sign of control: characters who have leeway to be sarcastic are usually the characters who are in charge or have power in the situation. These are the characters in charge of running the local army base, the jackass cop who is arresting your rebel protagonist. These are the characters who can get away with it, the characters who snark when they know the person they’re snarking at can’t fight back. Nobody really wants to put up with a jackass who makes them feel like shit most of the time. If your hero is constantly snarking off at authority and at their buddies because they feel out of control, maybe that’s a reason why they shoudn’t have friends. So, if your hero is snarking at your villain, it better be because they’re trying to make that villain angry enough to fight stupid or distract them, not because they believe the villain’s not a threat (and they’re proven right).

4) Snark is a good way to make someone angry: Like I said above: someone’s gotta be the butt of the joke. If you’re character’s going all John McClane snarky on someone because their tongue is the last weapon they have in a situation where their outmanned, outgunned, and dragging themselves through a skyscraper on bloody feet then…fine. Snark can be a great way for your protagonist to cover what they’re actually doing by getting the other guy angry. This is a great use of snark, so long as you remember the part about being outgunned and on the defensive. It doesn’t really work when your protagonist is in control of a situation at the end of the fight or just generally acting like an intellectual or emotional bully.

Or…they’re just not funny.

But let’s rewind that back. Snark is a good way to make someone angry. Your reader should never be questioning (unless you want them to question) why someone would ever want help your character, especially if all they’ll get from it is pain and misery. John Constantine ran into this problem on one of his more well handled comic runs, he kept getting his friends killed and he started running out of friends. Now, Constantine is a conartist (and arguably a villain protagonist), he’s a self-centered jerk, he’s an all-around asshole, he’s an adrenaline junkie, and the people in his setting generally respond to him like he is one. Including denying him assistance when he asks for it because they know they’re not going to get anything from it except pain and misery.

He spends a great deal of his time in a few of his comic runs backtracking, capitulating, and trying to talk people around into assisting him before he screws them over and gets them killed. It’s a theme.

I love Hellblazer, but let’s not pretend Constantine’s a nice guy people like. At least, not when he’s in the hands of a competent writer *cough* Garth Ennis *cough*.

5) They’re that damn good: Boba Fett is pretty much the only character I can think of who actually fits this description. He’s the best bounty hunter in the galaxy, everyone quivers at the sound of his name, and he’s actually far too skilled and useful for Vader to annihilate him for the crime of mouthing off. He’s not replaceable. Every other character in the story (including Luke) was replaceable. Yoda and Obi-wan even had a backup ready in case he failed. There are almost no characters in the universe who are so good that they can say: “You need me, so I can do and say whatever I want.” A Chosen One with that mentality who survives is a Chosen One who has the author cheating for them.

Look: Stories have to have an internal logical consistency. This internal logical consistency is what generates suspension of disbelief in the reader. You’ve got to stay inside it, if you break it, you break your setting and your story. Your character, even if they happen to be the better version of you, is someone who has to live in the setting world you create. They have to be responsible for what they do and say, even when they’re saying and doing the things you might wish you could do. Other characters will respond to them based on their own worldview, their own values, and their own needs or desires in combination with your character’s actions.

The local police chief isn’t going to want a newbie nobody assisting on his investigation, mucking around crime scenes, and mucking up evidence. Especially when that newbie nobody has no background in investigation and has a close personal tie to the deceased. It’s all well and good to say: well, they’re good enough so why would he turn them down? 1) Why would he need them in the first place?  2) Conflict of interest is a real problem. Revenge isn’t a legitimate motivation to give to a cop, it’s an understandable one, but it’s just going to get crossways of what they’re trying to accomplish.

It’s okay to have a character who is the Constantine level of self-destructive, it can create a good story. But make sure that’s the kind of story you want to be telling first, not “oh shit! I just made my biggest villain look like an idiot, now the tension bubble is gone and the reader might not be afraid of them anymore!”

I can’t worry about your character going into their final fight if I’ve already been convinced they’re going to come out alive.

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