(To see all my posts on MisCon, including last year’s notes, go here.)
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: Snarking Up Your Characters
Panel members: Carol Berg, Jim Butcher, Jane Fancher, Diana Pharaoh Francis
Panel description: Who would Malcolm Reynolds, Harry Dresden, and Tyrion Lannister be without their snark? Join us to learn what it means to be snarky, how to add snark to your characters, and how to write perfect one-liners.
Q: Should we define snark before we talk about it?
JB: Snark at the core is irreverent humor and observation. It’s a deflection.
JF: The deflection is a facade between them and the world.
JB: If it’s insightful, then it’s wit.
CB: When I think of something irreverent, I think teenage boys. It indicates a deep insecurity in the character although they don’t necessarily know it. They think they’re witty, but it’s a comment on themselves.
DPF: When we tend to filter, it’s tact. Snark strips away the tact.
JF: With a touch of humor.
DPF: When you can’t say anything deep about emotional things, snarky interaction may be used. It gives you a feel that there’s something under the surface. It helps form bonds without opening up emotionally.
JF: It could be used to stop an argument.
CB: It can be used as a relief valve.
Q: In dark situations, do you use gallows humor? What is the line for too much snark?
JF: The line is different for different readers. Some think there’s too much snark and some not enough. You need balance.
CB: Any one note character can drive people crazy. You can’t define a character by snark (or any one characteristic). It’s unreal.
JB: And becomes unfun.
DPF: I’m irritated with too much snark in tense situations, like life or death situations.
JF: You have to prove that there’s more to the character than just snark.
JB: Too much snark lowers its value and undermines the drama. For example, in Jurassic Park 3, everyone becomes snarky.
Q: It seems like more male characters are snarky. Is that inherent?
DPF: There are lots of good female snarky characters.
JF: Some examples: Ivanova from Babylon 5, Buffy, the Bitch Queens.
DPF: With snark, there’s a fine line between mean (which makes a character unlikeable) and funny.
JF: You’re not going to please everybody. Some people never like snark.
Q: Is it a requirement to have snark in urban fantasy as compared to science fiction?
JF: I have snarky characters in my science fiction story. Buffy was the original character in urban fantasy who became popular. That set the tone.
CB: I write fantasy, but I have snarky characters to spice it up. Snark prods the serious hero.
JF: Otherwise it’s just grim.
CB: It brings humor.
DPF: I had a character who couldn’t use his hands but needed to go to the bathroom. However, everyone around him doesn’t like him. This had potential for snark and humor.
JF: It’s the embarrassment factor. Snark helps you get over it.
DPF: It helps diffuse embarrassment.
JF: Hopefully there’s at least some characters to lighten up the mood.
JB: How do you get to the point of being comfortable writing snarky characters so that the reader understands it? I practiced a lot in conversation with my son.
CB: Or pretend to be a 14-year-old girl with her boyfriend.
DPF: Comedians are a great source for snark. They give truthful observations in a snarky way. It’s painful, but you know exactly what they mean.
JF: I practiced snark with my brothers and sisters.
CB: Get inside the head of your character. Snark may come naturally with a totally different character. Practice writing the situation.
JF: I don’t consciously write it. I know the character, the set up, and the tension.
Q: There are cultural differences in what is funny and what is dry wit. Is being snarky an American thing?
JF: It’s situational. It’s a euphemism for something else. You need to set up the scene.
Q: When characters come up against authority, can they diffuse it by being snarky or does that sometimes sets off a fuse?
JF: Snarky comments will trigger something. It depends on the situation.
Q: When people react to snark, is this cultural or can you go where no man dares to go? For instance, the fool can snark to the king, but no one else can.
JF: The function of the fool in court was to tell the truth. He was the original stand up comedian. He’s part of the Jungian archetypes. If it becomes too serious, look at the balance of types of characters. You need variety.
Q: In a situation where you have a noble character, how do you create snark?
JB: How can you create snark without that character? The noble character as the target is just as important. You need someone to be the straight guy. Otherwise there’s no contrast. Never underestimate the power of the straight guy. Humor can also come from reversals.
JF: When it finally comes, have a good zinger.
JB: Or a one liner at the end.
Q: Who are your favorite snarky characters?
JF: What he said.
DPF: The characters in Firefly.
JF: Spike in Buffy.
Q: Do you use snark or wit? How do you use it to push the plot?
DPF: I don’t care as long as it works.
JF: I don’t worry about the definitions.
DPF: Wit is sharp, insightful humor. It contrasts what they’re saying with what’s happening.
JB: I go for the cheap laughs.
JF: I try to make that work.
CB: Use it if there’s a purpose to it.
DPF: Suppose there’s a truth that has to be given but the character doesn’t want to listen. Then you can deliver it in a humorous way so that they can hear it and be more willing to hear it.
Q: Different people have different lines for differentiating snark and wit.
JF: Yes, but there’s a continuum. Oscar Wilde was witty by being snarky.
JB: So, what’s everyone’s advice for writing snark?
DPF: Let it all hang out.
CB: Think of the character first and who they are.
JF: When writing dialog, let the conversation flow. Then edit brilliantly.
JB: I think beginning writers hold too much in. Don’t do it. Push things over the top. Practice doing it.
JF: And don’t be afraid.