Fiction Focus- Sarcastic Characters

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit” said someone once, and I sincerely hope they said it sarcastically.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a hero fan. Not many people are. Our favourites are often the sidekicks, the mentors, and quite commonly, the ones who can make a good sarcastic joke.

In the series A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin, there are very few heroes, but there are even fewer characters whom we actually like. Jon Snow, the illegitimate son sent away to the savage North may come under the heading “heroic”, but he (and possibly his brother Robb) are really it. And Jon Snow’s popularity probably stems from the fact that his actor in the TV adaptation is gorgeous, rather than people actually liking Jon Snow.  The person that people like in the series is Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf with few morals, who relies on gold and who is basically rude to everyone. And essentially everybody who reads the books loves him. He’s got charisma- both on and offstage. It’s quite a skill, really, charming people who are watching you from a distant, different world and see you as nothing but words on a page or a face on a screen.

Similarly, the eponymous demon of The Bartimaeus Trilogy stands heads and shoulders above his human counterpart when it comes to popularity, and it’s probably for the same reasons. He’s sarcastic, his sense of humour is acerbic and as far as we can tell, he tells it like it is. It’s easy to read a story through his eyes as an age-old, world-weary demon, strangely far easier than reading it through the eyes of Nathaniel, a human boy on the cusp of puberty.

But does it always have the same effect? Sometimes, sarcasm can come off as an author being a little too in love with the character themselves. In my opinion, Jace Wayland from The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare had that issue. While his jokes were funny, one on every page began to get a little wearing. It’s possible that it’s all about framing. We accept characters like Tyrion Lannister and Bartimaeus because they rely so much on it, they don’t have a lot going for them. I found in Jace Wayland that he was just too good looking and strong and talented to also have such a quick sense of humour. But then, many people found it extremely attractive, and I guess it worked out.

So what’s the winning formula? Is it about balance, between being light hearted and giving the character a good personality and also showing a deeper emotional side?

Also, how about a sarcastic first person, such as Bartimaeus? I find that whenever I write in first person they come out that way, and it annoys me. What do you guys think?

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2 Responses

  1. Heather says:

    I have to disagree a little – I loved Jon Snow from the very start of the books. But then, I go against the grain and as much as I love a sarcastic character or a side-switcher, I have this crazy soft spot for the struggle of a character who wants to do the right thing but isn’t always able to/ sure what that is anymore, but despite this tries with all their strength to do it.

    I think it stems from an early obsession with David Edding’s Sir Sparhawk. They do, of course, have to have a few flaws and sometimes it’s naivety or a willingness to overlook a minor crimes, but I really like the solidity of a pure hero sometimes.

    Of course, on the other side, Tyrion is my second favourite character and I wasn’t much bothered by Robb so there’s a slight nuance which decide which heroics I favour.

    I think it’s the flaws that makes it work or not. I love an underdog, a character who has to go through a struggle and who doesn’t always come out on top but fights against the world anyway – or with it.

    As for first person, I really wanted to write my current satire in first person in the beginning because I loved the sound of my narrator’s voice, but after a while I found the sarcasm too heavy and that third person works better. I think it depends on how sarcastic your character is and what kind of story they are telling.

  2. beckiw says:

    I really do like sarcastic characters or characters with wit. The only time I have a problem with it is when EVERY character is sarcastic in a book I’m reading. I sometimes find this with Sarah Rees Brennan. Nearly every character in any one of her books is witty and can deal a good come back. This is amusing mostly but sometimes a bit too much because it’s just like ‘Ok…not everyone can be sarcastic or witty…there has to be at least one character who doesn’t get it…’

    So I think you have to be careful with the sarcasm and wit. I think it kind of needs to come from the character themselves rather than placed upon them. By this I mean kind of what you outlined. Like Tyrion has his wit because it’s one of the few things he has. He can’t rely on brute strength or good looks so he honed his mind. That makes sense for him as a character. So I think sarcasm that stems logically from a character is the best kind and not randomly making a character sarcastic because you as the writer want to get in a killer line.

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