Kazza’s Guides: Writing a Witty Character
Witty characters are what I, in my own opinion, write best and enjoy most; even though I do like to try as wide a range of different characters as possible in order to develop myself as a writer. Being witty is not an easy task, especially if it’s not a gift you were born with. Often the result is varying, to a degree where I end up either loving or hating what I’ve written.
The guide begins with an introduction to wit and different types of it. If you think you already have that part covered, feel free to scroll to the ending where I share some pointers on how to go about writing a witty character or witty dialogue.
What is wit?
Sometimes the word wit is used in a context referring to a person’s natural ability to make observations and to understand them; i.e., a form of intelligence, or the quickness of a person’s perceptions.
In this guide, however, I use the word wit in reference to intellectual humor. A witty person is someone who is able to say or write things that are usually considered clever and/or funny. I’m not referring to stand up comedy, or comedy in general; some professional comedians are witty, but some are not. And quite often, wit is a more or less intentional display of intelligence, rather the ability to provide comedic relief.
Sometimes, the intention of a witty remark is insulting someone, rather than being funny. And sometimes, they are just the witty person’s attempt of showing off their intelligence and observational skills. I also find that many characters, or people, use witty or snarky remarks as a coping method.
In order for the remainder of this guide to be a bit more clear, there are certain definitions you need to be aware of.
- Repartees are snappy comebacks and witty retorts. This is the form of wit I personally tend to turn to most often while writing. Repartees are characterized by the quickness thereof, and the fact that they are only witty in the situation at hand; if you come up with a retort two hours later, it’s no longer witty.
- Quips are clever and often taunting remarks. They’re witty to a certain degree, but often delve into sarcasm. Quips are also defined as witty or funny observations, usually taking place in the spur of the moment.
- Snark, or a snide remark, is kind of a middle-form of repartees and quips, I suppose. Snark is the type of wit in which the intention is often to insult someone in a clever way. Most often it’s ingenious and taunting, rather than funny. Some snarky people are not intentionally cruel, and often end up regretting what they’ve said; while others don’t.
- Sarcasm is perhaps a familiar concept to most. The dictionary definition is harsh or bitter derision, a sharply ironical taunt, or a sneering or cutting remark. Sarcasm is often conveyed through irony or understatements. While some people think sarcasm is a very cheap form of wit, it is also, in my opinion, the most difficult to master. In real life, I would consider myself a sarcastic person with very dry humor, which is why sarcasm another form of wit I feel I do best. For me, the beauty in sarcasm when done well, lies in the fact that the people who are exposed to it don’t even realize that you are being sarcastic. Engaging in conversation with someone who is equally sarcastic is often fun as well as intellectually challenging.
In this context, Joss Whedon is someone I draw a lot of inspiration from. If you have ever watched, say for instance Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly, you have probably noticed that the dialogue is very clever. Whedon really is a master at snappy comebacks and witty one-liners. British comedies and television shows are also really good at repartees. In general, I tend to be very fond of shows where wit and sarcasm lay in focus; for example, Veronica Mars, Daria, Black Adder, House, BBCs Sherlock and Doctor Who. Studying witty characters in popular culture is a good way of grasping the basic concept of how to write them yourself.
Now that the basics have been covered, we can move on to the good stuff (hopefully). Just a word of warning before I start dishing out writing tips: what a person considers witty, funny or clever is highly subjective; and often depends on your sense of humor. What I may find clever, might not appear as such in the eyes of others. Writing something all of your readers will consider witty is nearly impossible, therefore, you can only try your best. Another thing which is good for you to remember, is that what I’m about to tell you isn’t law. There are probably better or more ‘right’ ways of going about it, and what works for me might not necessarily work for you. Like with all writing, you need to experiment.
Don’t try too hard
A telltale sign of good wit, in my opinion, is that it’s effortless; something the writing smoothly transitions in to and out of. One big mistake people often make, is that they try to force the snappy one-liners in just for the sake of having them there; when it in reality needs to serve a purpose and be a natural part of the situation at hand. When it comes to writing a witty character, the key is often less is more. The entire text does not need to be incessantly clever; sometimes just a short one-liner is enough. If you try to overdo it the wit becomes less witty, so to speak.
What type of wit is it?
As we established earlier there are different types of wit, and in order to portray your character accurately, you need to identify the form of wit they are most likely to turn to. Does your character just have a really dry and sarcastic sense of humor? Are they feeling threatened in the situation and using snarky remarks as a way of defending themselves? Are they engaging in witty banter/debate with someone else? Is the wit a form of light-hearted flirting, or perhaps a quippy conversation between friends? Is the character using wit or snark as a way of intentionally insulting someone? If the wit displays as light-hearted flirting, the writing would be very different from trying to come up with zingers.
Dialogue is important
I’ve found that the best way of conveying wit is usually through dialogue. Writing a witty character is especially fun when the character(s) they are interacting with is equally clever, and their entire interaction consists of witty banter and a battle of the minds. Turn the other character’s words against them. I usually focus most of my energy on writing clever dialogue or coming up with good one-liners.
Stay true to your character
If your character has a funny line but it doesn’t seem like something they would say, take it out, no matter how brilliant you think it may be. Like I wrote earlier, forced wit will fall flat. Witty dialogue, for example, will never be funny or seem genuine if it doesn’t stay true to who your character is. Take note of your character’s personality traits, befriend them, and let the wit stem from that in a natural manner. Once you know who your character is, make sure to be consistent. If your character isn’t sarcastic by nature, your perfect sarcastic line might be better saved for another.
Wit is a form of quick, observational and intelligent humor. So, if you are writing a witty character, you need to be observant. Pay close attention to what the other characters in the situation do or say. If you are roleplaying with someone, use the other person’s writing in your own character’s advantage. Sometimes their character might accidentally say something silly or do something you can have your character remark on. In this type of situation the wit is often spontaneous and perhaps something you didn’t plan on either. If you are writing on your own, without a partner, you are completely in control (or at least should be) of the situation and can thus plan the witty bits more carefully beforehand. Being an opportunist as a writer is important when it comes to handling a witty character.
Pay attention to choice of words
One of the first things I wrote in this guide is that being witty is not easy, especially if you don’t have a natural gift for it. I think anyone can learn how to be witty, but it takes a lot of time and effort. You can’t just suddenly decide to be witty and master the skill over night. When it comes to portraying witty characters, or writing clever dialogue, your choice of words is extremely important. Sometimes I write and rewrite a phrase ten times or more before I’m completely satisfied. It can take years before you have mastered cleverness completely, but it can be done. Your choice of words also depends on who your character is. Do they have a catchphrase or trademark? Do they put emphasis on certain words? Anyone who has watched FRIENDS probably remembers sarcastic Chandler Bing and his signature phrase: “Could I be any more…?”
Surprise the reader
Personally, I also tend to find wit especially entertaining when it turns up out of the blue. Like I wrote earlier, the entire text doesn’t have to be witty. If you intend for it to be, the risk of you falling flat and actually achieving the opposite effect is much greater, and at some point you’ll run out of material. Even though observational skills are important, you don’t want to be too obvious either. Sometimes it’s better if you manage to inch the wittiness in where the reader doesn’t expect it. That way, when they read it, they might just go, “Oh, that was clever. I didn’t see it coming.” Don’t give too much away.
I’m kind of self-conscious about giving you guys a sample of my own writing, mostly because it might not be as funny or appear as witty when you’re not aware of the whole situation and what has previously happened. But, I’m going to provide you with a snippet from one of my longer para replies from a roleplay here on Tumblr in any case. Even though it has been taken out of context and perhaps isn’t my best writing, hopefully it can shed at least some light on some of the things I’ve talked about in this guide.
My character is a journalist. A stranger imposes himself on her at her office, and claims to be an old classmate from high school, before asking my character to teach him how to write. Upon first glance, he seems like the typical jock in my character’s eyes; while he remembers her as being slightly bookish. Basically he’s rather rude, and she decides to fight fire with fire. My character’s reaction is a basic display of using snark and wit for the purpose of self-defence or coping.
Red hot anger surged in her chest at Dax’s insolence. He barged into her office uninvited, interrupting her work with subtle insults and snarky comments, and yet, somehow, expected her to actually do him a favor. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to her if this was his usual way of going about things; thinking he could bully people into giving him what he wanted.
But, she stood fast in her initial decision not to cater to him, at least not without making him work for it first. He had probably thought she would be easy to persuade, due to the air of acquiescence she had apparently given off in high school. However, Martha had always had a low tolerance when it came to bullshit, and she was going to make sure he understood that. She didn’t need, or even want him to be impressed with her, even if he apparently was surprised by her attitude.
“Weren’t you supposed to learn the alphabet back in kindergarten? Or was that just too difficult for you?”
It was perhaps a little too harsh a comment, but hurting this guy’s feelings wasn’t something she felt like she needed to worry about. After all, he had insulted her plenty during the last ten minutes, and she hoped to at least give him a slight taste of his own medicine.
“So, let me get something straight. You waltz in here, fully displaying your ‘jackass status’ from the very first moment, and yet, you seriously expect me to be compliant? Do tell — does pissing people off until they start marching to your tune usually work for you? Because it’s not working right now.”