The YA Sass Attack

You know what gets old really fast? Sass. I don’t mean, of course, the occasional well-timed quip, or a certain strong friendship dynamic that provides fun banter throughout a story. I mean sass present in every word of prose and dialogue that should read as clever, but instead comes across as whiny.

Here’s the thing about sass. Many YA books live for sass, but a lot of teens are way better at being whiny and angsty, so much so that whenever they enter sass territory, they’re more likely to come across as obnoxious rather than intelligent and observant. Which is no fault of the teen; that’s just the phase they’re going through. The stereotype had to come from somewhere, right?

What some YA books do, however, is take this obnoxiousness masquerading as wit and give it to every. Single. Character. And I mean every character. The pages are lined with phrases like “Oh yeah, that’ll help,” muttered sarcastically with rolling eyes, and every few paragraphs have at least one instance of raising eyebrows or smirking lips. It’s definitely great at conveying the air of superiority some teens (and truly, some people) have, and it makes an interesting case study, but dear lord is it obnoxious to read.

Guys, this may be revelatory: not every teenager is good at being sassy. Sarcasm is honed through careful word choice and lots of practice. I know because I remember being eleven years old and standing in the playground of my elementary school trying to figure out exactly how to phrase the downfall of the douche who was calling me names through the help of heavy sarcasm and the pure dismissal of his juvenile (because I was so much more mature, you see) methods of acting towards other people. For me, being sassy and sarcastic was a conscious choice that didn’t happen overnight. It was developed.

And it was developed as a defense mechanism. It was a way to help myself feel superior and not quite so shit when the loud-mouthed jerk tried to start fires. As I grew older, and as I found people whose friendships towards me were becoming practically unconditional, that sass and sarcasm started to ebb away. I stopped needing it as a crutch to feel better about myself because I was finally becoming comfortable in my own skin. I started to be able to laugh at the genuine humour present in good sarcasm and not take it personally, and in turn began to use it as a tool for entertainment, rather than as a weapon.

Knowing this, you’ll hopefully forgive me for reading every overly sassy, sarcastic character as one with incredible underlying confidence issues; one who isn’t sure of the constancy of the people around them. This is the character who, when ditched by a good friend, will turn around and say they never liked them anyways, covering up their pain by the image they’ve cultivated of themselves as a barefaced spitfire who just doesn’t give a damn. And the other teens believe it, because they think that’s what it means to be strong.

I’ve lived it, people. It sucked. And reading an entire novel dominated by the insecure deluding themselves into thinking they’ve figured everything out is not something I want to spend my time on. Especially when it’s done in such a way that it’s obvious the characters in the book think constant sarcasm equals intelligence and confidence. Because they, like anybody who isn’t sure of what they’re doing, don’t know when it’s okay to pause, lower the screen of self-preserving irony, and be real for once. And if what I’m reading isn’t showing me these people’s realities, their true realities from which their complexes were spawned, like mine had been through mean teasing on the playground, then I lose respect for the writing and judge it like crazy to be unlikely and naïve.

If every character in a book is sarcastic, not only do I become totally desensitized within fifty pages (which is a whole new can of worms), but what I’m reading stops being an amusing and powerful escape into the lives of clever teens and turns into a toxic world of falsity, delusion, and misconceptions of inner strength that don’t get resolved because the behaviour is never treated as a symptom of something bigger.

Which, I would venture to say, pretty much kills the entire point of the YA bildungsroman.


22 Responses to The YA Sass Attack

  1. Cheyenne Oct 21 2013 at 5:19 am #

    So well said. This is a topic that sorely needs to be addressed! I do love some YA though I read more (and generally prefer adult… and back in my day 😉 it was when ‘fantasy’ was just called ‘fantasy’ without the age-bracket modifier), I think the overused tropes need to be *gently* sprinkled in – and only when it suits a character. Bravo!

    • Biljana Oct 21 2013 at 4:20 pm #

      Ahh yes! Those good old days of no bracket modifiers! Glad you agree!

  2. JJ Oct 21 2013 at 7:27 am #

    I love this post, mostly because I wasn’t sassy or sarcastic as a teen. (I’m still not.) I was more akin to Luna Lovegood in my teenage days: spacey and in her own world. I was hard to tease because I didn’t react (and/or didn’t understand I was being teased, which takes the fun out of it, I think).

    • Biljana Oct 21 2013 at 4:21 pm #

      Yeah people that were successfully sassy in their teens were few and far between. Super unrealistic to make every character a sarcasm wizard. And I can totally picture you as a Luna Lovegood type 😉

  3. thejordache Oct 21 2013 at 8:27 am #

    I’ve been seeing a lot of sass in middle grade recently, too. It comes across even stronger when the book is written in first person and every thought from the POV character has some sass in it. Great post!

    • Biljana Oct 21 2013 at 4:24 pm #

      Oh man SO TRUE about first person…it’s enough to drive you crazy. When every thought is negative or taunting it’s just not a pleasant read.

  4. Rowenna Oct 21 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    Great points! I feel like timing matters, too–some people are sassy all the time, but plenty of people resort to sarcasm only when they’re feeling threatened or insecure or generally less than confident. So to me it’s also when and why a character pulls out the sarcasm. I’m more likely to roll with it if it’s not a vague character trait but a reaction to something.

    Not to say a character can’t be effectively acerbic. But the idea that all teenagers are sarcasm machines, ergo all teenage characters must be sassmonsters? Not realistic or fun to read.

    • Biljana Oct 27 2013 at 9:46 pm #

      Definitely hit the nail on the head with timing. It’s all about the intentions in the end. Some of my favourite characters are totally sarcastic about everything but it works because they know when not to be. Or if they don’t know, then other characters react to them and it becomes clear that it’s not okay, and the character just doesn’t know any better.

  5. Marina Oct 22 2013 at 8:31 am #

    I realized that the whole sassy coming across more as whinny when I was writing my own novel. My character was supposed to be a funny, easy going, sarcastic smart-mouth (aren’t they all?), but when I left the draft to let it sit and stew for awhile and went back to read it later, my own character started annoying me because she was coming across as whinny and annoying not a sarcastic smart mouth. With added angst between the dialogue, it was too much to bare, and I decided to scrap the entire character and start over. It was really strange…

    • Biljana Oct 27 2013 at 9:49 pm #

      You just exactly described a first draft of mine haha! I suppose that first fail is needed to really appreciate how easy it is to fall into the trap.

  6. Susan Dennard Oct 22 2013 at 9:35 am #

    Oh man…sassy. I am SO guilty of this–all of my earlier attempts at writing (especially the ones from when I was a teen) featured some Super Sassy Back-talking Ladies.

    Hell–let’s be honest–I’m still prone to overwrite the sass in first drafts. 😉

    Awesome post, Billy!!

    • Biljana Oct 27 2013 at 9:50 pm #

      Super Sassy Back-talking Ladies was my specialty when I was sixteen. I fancied myself to be one of them, and obviously my character was just me but with superpowers 😉

  7. PK Hrezo Oct 22 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Interesting! My MC’s are usually sassy cuz it’s what I know. Sassy as a form of regular communication is how I was brought up. My mom was the most sarcastic person I knew. I don’t know that it’s a crutch, tho, more the way our sense of humors have been warped over the years. Witty comebacks and remarks are the norm. Just watch any sitcom and it’s there. Perhaps it’s the delivery that makes it tiresome to read. If every character is full of sassy attitude, then yeah, that’s annoying. But if a witty character is naturally inclined to sass as a form of humor, then it works.

    • Biljana Oct 27 2013 at 9:56 pm #

      The key word of course is “naturally”, right? Not everybody uses it as a crutch, but when it’s done in a poor way (like you said, it’s the delivery that makes it tiresome) then it just makes me personally remember all of my failed attempts, and the failed attempts of others that couldn’t quite pull it off either, and my interpretation of the character is shifted from witty to just plain insecure. You’re right, though, it’s a different matter if it’s a relationship dynamic. It’s times like those that it can work really well.

  8. Carrie-Anne Oct 23 2013 at 1:25 am #

    I totally agree about the overkill of sassy, snarky narrators. It seems like every other YA book these days, both published and aspiring to be, is narrated by some Holden Caulfield imitator, but without his wit and originality. And like you said, a lot of the supporting characters are like that too.

    • Biljana Oct 27 2013 at 9:58 pm #

      Ugh exactly….Holden Caulfield imitators. You either get an entire book of them or the “token sassy character” that makes you want to rip your eyes out haha.

  9. Alexa Y. Nov 6 2013 at 3:28 am #

    I’ve never, ever really thought about this before! But you’re absolutely right. There is a certain kind of sass that works properly in stories, but there’s also the kind that gets overused. I could never really pinpoint what bothered me about those characters, but this post really sums it up well.

    • Biljana Nov 15 2013 at 1:08 am #

      Glad you enjoyed the post :). There are definitely characters that are subtler and it sometimes takes me a while to figure out what I don’t like. Almost always, it’s this issue.

  10. Sandy Nov 27 2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Totally agree. I was neither witty or sassy on a regular basis as a teen. It was a rare occasion when I dished out a witty comeback in retaliation to a mild insult sent my way by some other kid just trying to rile me up but on most occasions I just went the “roll my eyes and ignore them” route because I couldn’t think of something cool to say or I would say something that sounded lame. And then always AFTERWARDS the perfect comeback would come into my head after it was too late. And teens are definitely whiny, I was whiny, my 13 year old brother is whiny and I don’t think either of us was/is aware of it in our teenage years. I certainly didn’t realize how much I whined about things until my best friend pointed it out to me and I reflected on her words after the fact.

    Of course I also find whiny teen protagonists to be annoying as well. I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed reading about myself in a book so that’s something else that should be used in moderation as well.

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