Q&A: The Price of Humor

What do you mean when you mentioned in an article, “Snarky Characters usually have a low sense of self”? Thanks in advance!

This requires you to answer a question very honestly: why do you crack a joke?

Humor comes from some deeply messed up places. At least, learning to be funny does. Well adjusted, emotionally healthy people do not normally develop the sense.

Normal people can spot things that are funny, but, for the most part they won’t. If you’re basically happy, you’re not going to be driven to pick at the edges of your world. The impulse isn’t there. As a result, you’re not really going to develop the skill. Same thing applies for writing and most creative exercises. If you’re satisfied, you’re not going to go take the time and energy to develop those skills. After all, if you’re happy in the world you see, you’re not going to  be driven to build a new one.

Now, it’s important to understand, just because someone’s funny doesn’t mean they’re a bad person or mentally unstable. Someone who was bullied in school may have developed a class clown routine to mollify their tormentors. Someone who was neglected or abused may have an upbeat sense of humor as a desire to draw attention to themselves, or a subversive, observational wit. Someone who’s suffered serious loss, may use humor to deflect from emotional wounds, or to keep the people around them at arm’s length, to avoid future pain. Over time, these kinds of behaviors become part of your personality. It’s not an act, it really is a part of who you are.

I’m not excluding myself from this. My sense of humor comes from some deeply messed up experiences that have left some pronounced emotional scarring. I would be neither the writer, nor the inveterate smart ass I am without that background.

It’s a little reductive to simply say that someone who’s snarking off must have low self esteem; they probably do. If you’ve got someone who’s constantly cracking jokes, particularly under pressure, they’re used to using humor as an emotional defense, and by extension, that’s covering some psychological scars. Just because you want someone to think you don’t care doesn’t mean you don’t care, and because these kinds of behaviors become baked into your identity, they can also outlast the factors which created them.

So, you can potentially see someone who has a razor wit and is mostly well adjusted now.

While it’s popular to look at the snarky badass as someone who is so confident in themselves that they can laugh in the face of death, it’s helpful to remember that most people who crack jokes are doing so to avoid facing the realities of their situation. Someone who’s legitimately unfazed by what’s going on around them won’t need to mouth off to assure anyone of their position. They don’t need bluster or bravado, they don’t need to seem tough. They already are, and they know it. Soon enough, you’ll know it too. If you’re dealing with someone who’s dealt with their issues, it’s entirely legitimate for them to get snarkier the more stress they’re feeling, as the old defense mechanisms start kicking in.

There are ranges where a character can use humor offensively, specifically to antagonize their foes into making mistakes. This is a little different, and it’s not something most characters can really weaponize. Again, this is somewhat dependent on a kind of snap psychological assessment, that’s more likely in someone who has a real talent for humor.

Now, to be fair, I think snarky characters have a lot of merit. This is a very legitimate way to deal with stress, it’s true to a lot of real life experiences, and it can create some wonderfully satisfying dialog. However, as a writer, it’s important to understand that most humor is rooted in pain. Keep in mind that humor is often a reflection of how worn and battered your character is, rather than how untouchable they are, and you’ll get far better results.

Also, try to be honest with yourself about why you crack jokes, and you might start to understand why, when, and how your character would get mouthy. I realize this is asking for open-ended introspection, but trust me, it will make for better writing.


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