I’m a smartass, I can’t help it. It’s a quality that bleeds into my writing and I love how my characters can say the things I’d love to say without consequence. Well, usually, they are attacked at the end of the conversations, but my characters have an ability to kick ass I wholly do not possess. However, how much snark is too much snark?
One of my all-time favorite creations and easily the first or second-best thing I ever wrote was I WAS A TEENAGE WEREDEER. The first volume of the Bright Falls Mysteries was the story of a young woman named Jane Doe, her very name telling you what kind of story we were in, who had to solve the murder of the local homecoming queen after her brother is made the prime suspect by the police.
Generally, reception was incredibly positive. People loved the mixture of snark, pop culture references, quips, world-building, and plot. However, one curious bit of criticism stuck with me. I asked a friend of mine, who primarily read dark fantasy, what he thought of the book. “Well, I liked it, but the book confused me.” I asked him, “What was confusing about it?” “You deal with some dark stuff in this book: prejudice, murder, serial killers, and abuse. However, everyone is talking a mile a minute off one another. I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be a comedy or a horror story.” Well, the answer was it was supposed to be both.
Two of the most influential artists out there today are Joss Whedon and J.J Abrams who have managed to change the way we look at media. Their heroes are prone to making references, wisecracks, and standing up to authority with as much irreverence as humanly possible. They were hardly the first to take this attitude toward storytelling, though. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, Wes Craven’s Scream, and even the Indiana Jones movies were based around understanding the role of genre awareness, wit, plus a mostly serious story.
But how much is too much? Also, what if you’re not inclined toward filling your stories with razor sharp humor? What if you can’t? Well, this article is going to include a list of some techniques to spruce up your story with snark, humor, and witty observations. Your book may be sci-fi, horror, fantasy, or otherwise but it helps to keep these things in mind. You might also decide you don’t want any humor elements whatsoever in your work. In which case, this article may not be much help.
1:] Make sure your characters are aware of the story they’re in: One of the most interesting elements of Sansa’s story in A Song of Ice and Fire, for me at least, was the fact she was someone who had a very specific idea of how stories about captive princesses were supposed to go. The contrast between heroic knights and damsels in distress versus her horrible reality. This isn’t played for laughs but giving a character a sense of genre awareness can be a source of both humor as well as letting your audience know they’ve probably read genre fiction before. In I was a Teenage Weredeer, Jane Doe often has fun with the fact she’s a non-threatening form of shapeshifter versus a werewolf as well as a fan of horror movies. It helps that her knowledge of such movies gives her sometimes unearned confidence.
2:] Snark is a good tool for telling the truth: Out of the mouth of fools comes wisdom as well as the deeply sarcastic. One way of making sure you let a reader know you’re aware of any issues with a story is a deeply snarky character. The reason Scream worked so well is the fact its characters were aware of how deeply screwed up their situation was as well as how sick a movie serial killer would have to be. Letting the characters in on the joke can help the audience know when a villain’s plans have gone completely off the rails or a hero’s attempts to stop the bad guy really are THAT foolish.
3:] Don’t take yourself too seriously: One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is the assumption they are the next big thing in creativity. Some of the best writers in fiction have learned to roll with the silliness of their reality rather than attempt to justify every little bit of it. Terry Pratchett made a prolific writing career out of deconstructing virtually every kind of fantasy story under the sun. But even more serious stories benefit from knowing about the past styles of stories told in their genre. Would the Man with No Name be half as interesting if he wasn’t a cold-blooded killer who defied conventional ideas of good versus evil in Westerns? Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law Trilogy is full of making fun of not just traditional fantasy but its own protagonists and their shortcomings.
4:] The best stories to make fun of are the most serious: It was Mel Brooks who said the best parodies of a story are the kind which also function as a good example of their genre. Big Trouble in Little China is one of the greatest martial arts movies of the eighties as well as comedies because it’s a serious urban fantasy story the characters aren’t prepared to deal with. One tactic I chose with my Bright Falls Mysteries book was that while Jane would treat the story as a thrilling adventure, it would be horrifying and traumatizing to everyone around her. Indeed, her attitude would antagonize a lot of the characters around her.
5:] It’s good to have someone to play off of: Some of the best humor in books is due to characters able to take as well as they give. Buddy comedy duos are a thing for a reason. Legolas and Gimli are one fantastic example but so are Vimes and Carrot. I gave my protagonist, Jane, an innocent naive girl (who is also a werewolf) as her best friend so Jane’s more sarcastic cynical side has a counterpoint.
6:] Avoid the obvious gags: The line between comedy and farce is a fine one. However, if you want your story to be taken seriously, don’t make your characters look like fools or the villains. While fools can be terrifying, look at Joffrey Baratheon for example, they are often supported by the real villain who is extremely competent. Falstaff is only funny in relationship to the more straight-laced Hal. Slapstick, puns, and stupidity only hurt stories when the best humor comes from a place of sharp observation.
Hopefully, this is a helpful essay for aspiring writers. Lord knows, I avoid low humor like puns.
My deerlightful books are something worth fauning over.