Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Ode to Sass (And Why I Don't Write It)

 I admit, I do not write sassy characters. My characters may get a little mouthy, brash, and gobby, but sassy isn’t in their repertoire.  Sass can be too challenging. It could be that I’m not a sassy sort, either.  I’m more like a long-winded gob with a pinch of Eeyore. 

Sassy characters throw shade. But they do so with such finesse, it makes one grin. Sass is a form of humor that unfolds in a slow build to culminate into an unexpected but gobsmacking punchline. My MFA students love to write sassy characters, but all too often, the sass misses the mark. The  character is reduced to a caricature, a shallow groan that is too much of a mean girl stereotype. In the case of LGBQT characters, sass is too often reduced to stereotype.

Sass doesn’t mean strong. One doesn't have to be strong to be sassy. Some are sassy to cover up their fear. Too much sass and it comes across as rude, flippant and fragile. And maybe that’s the point of the sass, but all too often it seems more of a haphazard attempt at characterization. It all depends upon the character and her story.

Sass is more like a fine seasoning. Just a pinch of it, and it brings out the full flavor of the character. But too much ruins the meal.

The best way to learn how to write sass is to study sassy characters. 

For example:

Sassy, from Homeward Bound (and voiced by the perfectly pitched Sally Field, via Disney, based on the equally fantastic character in The Incredible Journey (1961) by Sheila Burnford).  She’s quick-witted, with her “cats rule and dogs drool” philosophy. But she is also loyal, optimistic and bold. 

Another bold favorite is Hermione Granger (portrayed by the indomitable Emma Watson in the Harry Potter movies, based on the equally fantastic character in the books written by JK Rowling). In which she balances a strong sense of self with an equally strong sense for others.  “Just because you have the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have."

More favorite Hermione quotes to live by:

“Oh for heaven’s sake! Listen to me, all of you! You’ve got just as much right as wizards to be unhappy! You’ve got the right to wages and holidays and proper clothes, you don’t have to do everything you’re told — look at Dobby!”

“Now if you two don’t mind, I’m going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed - or worse, expelled.”

“No, Harry. Even in the wizarding world, hearing voices isn’t a good sign.”

And don't forget about these sassy favorites:

Eilony (Lloyd Alexander, Prydain Chronicles; 1964-1968)

Puck (Michael Buckley, Sisters Grimm; 2005-2012)

Isadore Quagmire (Lemony Snicket, Series of Unfortunate Events; 1999 – 2006)

Anne Shirley (LM Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables; 1908)

Matilda (Roald Dahl, Matilda; 1988)

Who are your favorite sassy characters?

--Bobbi Miller