Ever have a writing exercise turn into something so fun that it blossoms into a larger story?
I did. And therein lies a problem.
The problem is:
A) I already have a second draft of a novel and two first drafts of other novels to work on, as well as the outlines for three short stories.
B) The story has a smart-assed narrator.
Point B is the most troublesome to me. The problem (I think) is that the smart-assed narrator has been done to death.
It’s a quick way to make a likeable character. “Hey, this is a protagonist that doesn’t take themselves too seriously! This person is funny, with a wry way of looking at things and a tendency to downplay the serious things happening to them!”
This begs the question: is being a smart-ass a character trait, or is it only a quirk disguised as a trait?
I think it is a quirk rather than a carefully drawn character trait. It feels easy, and I am suspicious of the easy path.
I’ve known people who were complete smart-asses all the time and they all had one thing in common: they were “small doses” people. I couldn’t take being around them for too long. They were amusing in the beginning, but please… take off the mask sometime.
In the end they turned out to be assholes. They were full of themselves, relying on sarcasm as an easy way to deflect actual emotions, with their cockiness being a transparent distraction from their fear. So do I let a smart-assed narrator hijack my writing schedule?
Inflicting A Smart-Ass On A Reader
I think that smart-assed narrators are kind of a cliche at this point. I’ve read a LOT of them in Sci-Fi, going from Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series all the way through Charles Stross’ “Laundry” books.
This is not so much an issue in Fantasy, which relies on a certain amount of gravitas; otherwise, elves, fairies, and dwarves would seem pretty ridiculous.*
I think the smart-ass is too heavily represented in fiction. In the end, the smart-ass ends up being shallow. They’re fun to read, but resist depth. I love wit, but I don’t want to write a character that is nothing more than a series of bon mots.
So What Do I Do?
Here I am with this writing exercise that has a lot of good ideas on morality, god(s), the random nature of the universe, power, and fear. Can I get beyond the smart-assed narrator and preserve the things I actually want to say without reducing the whole thing to absurd observations from a person I wouldn’t want to hang with in real life?
In the meantime I am far behind on the projects I am currently juggling. Is this whole thing a ruse by my oh-so-lazy brain to keep me from doing the things I HAVE to do? It’s the classic procrastinator’s dilemma… or it would be had any procrastinators taken the time to formulate a dilemma.
The story has taken up the same kind of slot in my mind as all the other stories. It doesn’t FEEL like a diversion. I’ve taken voluminous notes on the things I want the characters to do and believe, as well as outlined the general philosophies and point of view of the story itself. It has a reason to exist, which makes it real.
If there is going to be a smart-assed narrator, I can’t be lazy and make them all wit and no depth. It is exhausting to be anything ALL the time, especially a smart-ass.
How do you feel about smart-assed narrators? Sick of them? Can’t get enough? And how do you handle them in your writing?
* This is why Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was so amazing. It lovingly satirized a form that absolutely needed it.