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Old 07-08-2010, 11:53 PM   #1
Sean Wills
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Sarcastic Main Characters

So, I've got a bit of a problem.

The main character of my current WIP (first-person past tense, if anyone's wondering) started out fairly even-tempered, but has become increasingly sarcastic and even arrogant as time goes on. This is mostly a good thing, since it fits well with the rest of his personality and stops him from being too bland, but I worry that readers will get tired of him after a while.

What do you guys think? Do sarcastic main characters easily grate on your nerves, or does it depend entirely on how they're written? I'd also appreciate examples of successful/unsuccessful attempts at this if anybody has them to hand!
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Old 07-09-2010, 12:02 AM   #2
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there definitely needs to be balance. too much sarcasm does grate after a while (just like in real life!), especially if it's mean-spirited. to make sure we're still rooting for him, you want show the character's vulnerability too, who/what he cares about, and moments when he's being genuinely nice.
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Old 07-09-2010, 12:16 AM   #3
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Agreed. Snarky/sarcastic gets old real fast (it just sounds bitter and passive-aggressive). But a little here and there along with some good hearted self deprecation can be fun.
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Old 07-09-2010, 12:16 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by wandergirl View Post
there definitely needs to be balance. too much sarcasm does grate after a while (just like in real life!), especially if it's mean-spirited. to make sure we're still rooting for him, you want show the character's vulnerability too, who/what he cares about, and moments when he's being genuinely nice.
That's what I was thinking as well. Crucially, I'm trying to give the impression early on that his superiority complex isn't really justified and that the way he views other people isn't always right. (There's nothing I hate more than the Omniscient Teenage Protagonist...)

Also it's his thoughts that are sarcastic/rude rather than what he says, but of course the reader is living inside his head and so must be privy to all of it. One of the unexpected challenged of first-person!
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Old 07-09-2010, 12:18 AM   #5
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There are a lot of snarky, bad boy/girl characters out there because I think it's easy for authors to make characters like this really come across with a strong voice. Especially in first person stories. I'd definitely try to balance it with moments of vulnerability, as others have said. And if you have willing readers, poll them on which character they liked the best, and whether or not the main was their favourite. That will give you a good indication.
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Old 07-09-2010, 12:19 AM   #6
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I think snark can be a lot of fun, as long as (like wandergirl said) you make sure to show the character's vulnerability and humanness. A character can definitely be sarcastic because people are sarcastic; in the same vein, no one is wholly sarcastic. As long as your character is well-rounded, I don't see why it would be a bad thing.
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Old 07-09-2010, 03:18 AM   #7
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Maybe, if you're worried, you should show it to someone else.

I think that sarcasm is best if the MC isn't hiding behind a wall of snark. As long as the character feels and expresses a normal range of emotion, I think it can work.
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Old 07-09-2010, 05:21 AM   #8
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You should read the "Dexter" series by Jeff Lindsay. Jeff does biting sarcasm and self deprecation to a tee, and I never once found Dexter annoying or whiney. Dexter himself is a very complex character, a somewhat tragic hero, if you will. The important thing is that he has redeeming characteristics. He doesn't just stand back and make witty comments at everything, only the stuff that doesn't really matter. He's fiercely protective of the people who matter to him, and he isn't scared of going out on a limb to save them. But he's perfectly content to roll his eyes at his co-workers. It's all about balance. There have to be a few things that the character takes seriously, and you need to show the reader why those things are important to them, and why the rest of it isn't.

Best of luck!
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Old 07-09-2010, 03:46 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sean Wills View Post
So, I've got a bit of a problem.

The main character of my current WIP (first-person past tense, if anyone's wondering) started out fairly even-tempered, but has become increasingly sarcastic and even arrogant as time goes on. This is mostly a good thing, since it fits well with the rest of his personality and stops him from being too bland, but I worry that readers will get tired of him after a while.

What do you guys think? Do sarcastic main characters easily grate on your nerves, or does it depend entirely on how they're written? I'd also appreciate examples of successful/unsuccessful attempts at this if anybody has them to hand!

I had this problem with the MC of my UF series. I thought she was getting a bit annoying, and when my Beta read it she said the same thing - she was too sarcastic to the point of being nasty and arrogant.

I panicked. I wanted people to like her, to see her as funny and spunky.

But the feedback I got when I tried to change it was to leave her as she was. Her sarcasm made her unlikable, but it also made her human, and when she did show her vulnerability it was so much more powerful because of that.

So I left her sarcastic, mean, arrogant and nasty.
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Old 07-09-2010, 04:00 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by shaldna View Post
I had this problem with the MC of my UF series. I thought she was getting a bit annoying, and when my Beta read it she said the same thing - she was too sarcastic to the point of being nasty and arrogant.

I panicked. I wanted people to like her, to see her as funny and spunky.

But the feedback I got when I tried to change it was to leave her as she was. Her sarcasm made her unlikable, but it also made her human, and when she did show her vulnerability it was so much more powerful because of that.

So I left her sarcastic, mean, arrogant and nasty.
I'm trying to err on the side of 'human' as well, even if he does end up being a bit grating at times. It's difficult to strike that kind of balance, but I think it pays off in the end if you can manage it.
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Old 07-09-2010, 05:14 PM   #11
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I had to redraft my MS many times to get the voice right. The main character for this MS is a cynical bitchy male teen. The whole point is that he becomes much better as the story progresses; he still has that cutting humour and a quick putdown but he's also, I hope, a likeable hero at times. The best way to stop a character being a two dimensional bitch is to make them funny, or at the very least be aware of how ridiculous they are. The plot evolves and explains why he's got such an irrational hatred of certain characters and suddenly he realises he's not nearly as brilliant as he thinks he is. It stops him being a boring bitch type.

Hopefully this helps!
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Old 07-09-2010, 06:34 PM   #12
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Quote:
Sean Wills:
Do sarcastic main characters easily grate on your nerves, or does it depend entirely on how they're written?
It's like anything and depends entirely on how well it's written.

Saying that though, I'm getting bored of reading YA fiction with so-called sarky/snarky MCs - particularly male MCs who are supposed to be liked or thought of as cool by the reader and especially any male MC who is supposed to be the love interest for a female MC.

Like everyone else has said, there needs to be a range of emotions there and someone who is sarky to everyone all the time is (to me) just a massive wanker who needs to be smacked back into their box rather than put up on a pedestal.

While I'm ranting ( ), I think that there's an over-reliance in YA fiction on sarcasm as being the only form of humour that YA characters are able to demonstrate - mainly because it's easier to put a smart-mouthed put down on the page rather than to craft a situation with a good punchline ending.

I'm saying all that with the knowledge that I had a sarky male MC in my YA fantasy only to realise on the re-writes that he irritated the hell out of me. Now I've tried to put a range of humour in there and while different characters have (hopefully) funny lines, there's humour from situations and warm, good natured humour rather than constant cruelty.

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Old 07-09-2010, 06:49 PM   #13
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I have really had my fill of sarcastic main characters.
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Old 07-10-2010, 01:51 AM   #14
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Saying that though, I'm getting bored of reading YA fiction with so-called sarky/snarky MCs - particularly male MCs who are supposed to be liked or thought of as cool by the reader and especially any male MC who is supposed to be the love interest for a female MC.

Like everyone else has said, there needs to be a range of emotions there and someone who is sarky to everyone all the time is (to me) just a massive wanker who needs to be smacked back into their box rather than put up on a pedestal.
Oh yeah, the protagonist who can act like a dick without suffering any repercussions whatsoever really irritates me too. That's not what I'm doing, though - this character is repeatedly told to lighten up a bit, and I'm hoping to give the impression that it might be a good idea for him to follow that advice every now and then. I want him to be a definite outsider to most of his classmates, but a real outsider, not one who everybody secretly admires and wants to emulate. The sarcasm/snarkiness is more a defence mechanism than the product of an 'I'm just too goddamn awesome for all of you' mindset, which is something I also can't stand in main characters.
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Old 07-10-2010, 02:44 AM   #15
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Old 07-10-2010, 02:44 AM   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sean Wills View Post
Oh yeah, the protagonist who can act like a dick without suffering any repercussions whatsoever really irritates me too. That's not what I'm doing, though - this character is repeatedly told to lighten up a bit, and I'm hoping to give the impression that it might be a good idea for him to follow that advice every now and then. I want him to be a definite outsider to most of his classmates, but a real outsider, not one who everybody secretly admires and wants to emulate. The sarcasm/snarkiness is more a defence mechanism than the product of an 'I'm just too goddamn awesome for all of you' mindset, which is something I also can't stand in main characters.
Sean, it sounds like you have a good handle on why your MC is how he is, and in this case the sarcasm may not be misplaced. I'd say, along with others here, just be careful that the sarcasm doesn't wind up overwhelming the story and annoying the heck out of readers. (And publishers...)

I'm laughing a bit at the phrase I bolded in your quote because one of the MCs in one of my YA series has a tendency to be very sarcastic. He's a former foster child with some heavy-duty psychic abilities (which are why his biological mother abused him badly enough for him to wind up in foster care), so he has reason to be prickly and sarcastic sometimes.

In the first book he appears in, his counselor constantly tells him, "Remember, Blake, sarcasm is a defense mechanism." Blake's adoptive mother picks up the phrase as well. It ended up being one of the catch phrases of the series; I think almost every character says it in one book or another, completely unplanned by me.

My daughter/beta reader also picked it up, and now I can't be sarcastic without her saying it...
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Old 07-10-2010, 02:54 AM   #17
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I love bitchy, snarky characters. But there has to be something interesting about them. I don't think it's viable to have someone be a bitch for the sake of it.
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Old 07-10-2010, 01:56 PM   #18
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Could not depend more on the writing. I have wanted to kill some sarcastic characters because...well, often I feel as though a lot of sarcastic MCs are arrogant pricks. Sorry, guys. To me, anyway, they seem to have ridiculously high standards for the people around them and the sarcasm often feels completely unjustified. Most of the time I want to shout, "YOU'RE NOT PERFECT EITHER, YOU KNOW!!!" If the sarcasm is mean, it's just...awful. It is ALL ABOUT BALANCE.

Like Meredith in SUCH A PRETTY GIRL has her sarcastic moments, but they're just like these short sharp shocks in her narrative. She's not just a sarcastic bitch. Melinda in SPEAK is very sarcastic but it is brilliantly done because we can see that she is vulnerable, and the sarcasm--it's not so much a "defense mechanism", which I find cliched, as just her way of looking at the world. On the other hand, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY's Hannah was so judgmental, so bitchy, so superior and condescending as part and parcel of her sarcasm that I could just about lose it with her.

Also, sarcasm is a tough one to crack because of the sheer number of sarcastic MCs in YA. I personally get sick of the feisty leadgirl, or the softiebuthidingitwithdick loveinterest, because there are so cliched that they feel passe. Also, I think there should be some kind of cap on sarcastic leads in historical fiction, esp. when the sarcasm is used to illustrate HOW DIFFERENT AND UNIQUE THE GIRL IS IN COMPARISON TO HER DULL CONFORMIST FRIENDS!!!!111 Yeah, that gets on my nerves. I feel like yelling, can we have one about the more common historical girl -- because there are so many about the feisty girl that it's hardly a unique standalone trait anymore.

Sorry. On a tangent a little.
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Old 07-10-2010, 03:47 PM   #19
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I have a snarky, sarcistic, sexist YA character in my WIP, and I'm not taking him off. His argument for being the way he is: does it really matter? How about, I love being this way? He probably has some redeeming qualities (loyalty to friends, helps ppl at random, etc), which his friends (my main protags) see, but if you ask him, his friends are just looking too hard cos of their inability to accept that sometimes ppl are just bad, mean dicks without needing a weird reason like mummy and daddy touched me in my pants when i was a kid.
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Old 07-10-2010, 03:53 PM   #20
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Old 07-11-2010, 12:36 AM   #21
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I have a MC who is sarcastic but I never considered changing her. I did have to reveal more about her. Several crits came back with comments indicating they wanted to know how she felt after some of her jabs. Actually, she did regret her tone on a regular basis, but I hadn't written anything in the story to indicate that. So for me, it was a matter of getting the reader into the MC's head more so they would know she wasn't truly a mean-spirited bitch. She was just mouthy and going through some stuff that made her even less aware of the impact of her words than usual. I knew that, of course. Unfortunately, there wasn't really any way for the reader to know. There were hints in her actions but there needed to be some clarity in some places to make the hints in others more obvious to the reader.
So I blathered on all this time to say: Maybe get into the MC's head a little bit more so the reader will understand him the way you do.
Hey, sarcasm I can do. Brevity is not one of my strengths.
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Old 07-11-2010, 12:47 AM   #22
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I have a MC who is sarcastic but I never considered changing her. I did have to reveal more about her. Several crits came back with comments indicating they wanted to know how she felt after some of her jabs. Actually, she did regret her tone on a regular basis, but I hadn't written anything in the story to indicate that. So for me, it was a matter of getting the reader into the MC's head more so they would know she wasn't truly a mean-spirited bitch. She was just mouthy and going through some stuff that made her even less aware of the impact of her words than usual. I knew that, of course. Unfortunately, there wasn't really any way for the reader to know. There were hints in her actions but there needed to be some clarity in some places to make the hints in others more obvious to the reader.
So I blathered on all this time to say: Maybe get into the MC's head a little bit more so the reader will understand him the way you do.
Hey, sarcasm I can do. Brevity is not one of my strengths.
Your MC sounds very interesting. Lovely to see that your she'll get to reflect on her words. Very interesting
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Old 07-11-2010, 12:53 AM   #23
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Your MC sounds very interesting. Lovely to see that your she'll get to reflect on her words. Very interesting
From your lips to an agent's ears, I hope! Thanks so much. I hope someone else will find her as interesting as I do -- and soon. It's making the query rounds now.
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Old 07-11-2010, 01:56 AM   #24
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I think it's also important that a snarky character isn't as perfect as they think. For me it's actually rather funny when they keep bungling and yet find a way to explain it in their own mind. Does that make sense?
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Old 07-11-2010, 11:30 AM   #25
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^ Yeah, I agree with Kirkland. I take back a lot of what I wrote in my earlier post, because I think I went WAY over the top. I think it's just that a lot of sarcastic MCs that I've written don't get a "comeuppance" so to speak. Like Shelltex's MC. What I hate about sarcastic MCs is they always seem so "above" everyone else, and authors have a tendency to fawn over MCs that like too much. That gets on my nerves. As long as it's not "oh they're so smart, clever, spirited, brilliant, better than everyone else" (which I've read a lot), I don't think it's such a big deal.
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