Sassy Does Not Equal Strong

1 Mar

by Savannah J. Foley

~~~

I confess to you guys so much I might as well be a Catholic school girl and you guys are my priest. Well, get into your confession box because I’ve got another one: I hate sassy characters.

I don’t know when the myth that strong female character = sassy began, but I’m here to stop it.

First let’s define sassy so that we’re on the same page:

Dictionary.com: fresh, impertinent, impudent, overbold, saucy

Merriam-Webster: impudent, vigorous, lively

Of these words, I’d like to pull out saucy and impertinent. When I think ‘sassy’, I think of someone who is really sarcastic to the point of rudeness. She is primarily defined by her ‘attitude’, and her mouth is always turned up in a smirk. She rolls her eyes a lot. She had demeaning nicknames for authority figures. In real life we’d call her a raging brat, but she seems to get a pass in the world of fiction.

I get that there might have been a point in time where girls weren’t usually sassy, so to see a sassy character come along and kick butt was unusual, and enjoyable. But in today’s society no one’s keeping girls down (as much), and sassy, to me, comes off as unnecessary. Cynical, sarcastic MC who goes off on long, internal asides dedicated to hyperbole about a hypothetical outcome of her current situation? Boring and exhausting. I cringe. I’ve just seen it so much, and I don’t find it interesting any more.

But maybe that’s just me. I’ve never really been one for sarcasm, so maybe it’s a matter of personal taste. Here’s my real problem: Sassy automatically gets a pass as a ‘strong female character’. If your girl talks back to an authority figure, BAM! Sassy! Vocal! Strong!

Therefore, I think that a lot of young writers might lean towards sassy characters in an effort to shortcut their way into a ‘strong character.’ But strength doesn’t lie in the causticity of a verbal sting. Strong characters are always developed through their actions.

You’re probably heard of Active vs. Passive characters. Active characters propel the story, while passive characters are pushed through the story by external events. If your character smarts off while getting dragged around against her will by another character, she’s being passive (even if her mouth isn’t).

I googled to get an accurate picture of what everyone else thought were strong heroines, and I came up with the following list of books that star strong heroines:

The Secret Garden

The Bean Tree

Clan of the Cave Bear

Jane Eyre

Memoirs of a Geisha

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

Ella Enchanted

Sabriel

Island of the Blue Dolphins

A Wrinkle in Time

Does anyone see any ‘sassy’ characters? And yet these are all very popular books with very strong heroines.

I’m not saying sassy can’t be done right. But sass (and its sister sarcasm) are like very powerful seasonings – they can make a dish, but too much can break it. And most of all, beyond her sassy personality, your heroine should be active in creating her own destiny. Then she can make a few snide remarks about it 😉

Happy writing!

~~~

Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Nameless  is currently out on submissions. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here.

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45 Responses to “Sassy Does Not Equal Strong”

  1. kaemccrae March 1, 2011 at 12:29 AM #

    SO with you. Sassyness = Immaturity far too often. And unless it’s a growth mechanism (and I do so love it when it is, and always HOPE that it is), immaturity does not make for the most intriguing Main-ers. ) : Fictional stasis and all that.

    Though, Alanna the Lioness is the obvious sassywin exception.
    But she’s also from the 80s.
    Nuff said.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 12:35 AM #

      You’re absolutely right; sassyness often does indicate immaturity. Like a lippy twelve-year-old who just discovered acidic wit and uses it as their only rebellion.

      • Ashley March 1, 2011 at 1:46 AM #

        Haha, you’ve just described my twelve year old self. See how I’m able to admit that? 🙂

  2. Ella March 1, 2011 at 12:31 AM #

    Agreed so, so much.

    I love wit and sarcasm and one-liners, but I hate a good percentage of the characters that give them. Even if the humor is sound (which it often isn’t)…putting down friends to make yourself look clever? Talking back to the authority who can have you and your companions killed at a moment’s notice? Being a general pain in the ass and getting away with it /every single time?/ Not only are you annoying, you’re an author’s pet. It often isn’t the sassiness itself so much as the way other characters are expected to react. No one ever snaps back with something equally clever, or pulls the floor from under her feet while she’s busy snarking, or rolls their eyes and tells her to shut up, or gets angry and punches her in the face. If this were real life, people wouldn’t be gawking in awed silence. They’d tell her to stop being a royal brat.

    You’re also right in saying that having a sharp tongue doesn’t necessarily make a character proactive or sympathetic. That’s a trait – like liking rock music, or being claustrophobic. It’s not an excuse for a personality, or for development and strength. I think authors usually use wit to show that the character is clever or capable of standing up for her beliefs – but when trouble actually shows up and she’s busy melting in a puddle at her love interest’s feet, that doesn’t really cut it.

    I’m all for sassiness when it’s well written, and when it actually gets the character into trouble once in a while. Not being able to keep your mouth shut can be a pretty legit character flaw. X3;

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 12:34 AM #

      Wow, amazing comment! I wish I had thought to write some of the things you said!

    • Ashley March 1, 2011 at 1:48 AM #

      And I quote: What she said!

      No seriously, you’ve just wrote everything I wanted to say, thanks for being the Voice! 🙂

  3. Najela Cobb March 1, 2011 at 1:30 AM #

    I’m tired of unwarranted snark. There were some books that bordered on mean spirited. They were kind off putting. There’s nothing wrong with having a character being outspoken, but being rude is not cool. And another thing, these people don’t even get chastised for being snarky. I know if I were to be sarcastic with an adult, I’d been in huge trouble (not that it stopped me, but still).

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 9:19 AM #

      The lack of chastisement also bothers me. Somehow being completely snarky comes off to the other characters as quirky and humorous, even lovable, and I can’t stand that.

  4. Elizabeth March 1, 2011 at 1:49 AM #

    Can a male character be sassy? I just critiqued something for a class and the main character is ‘sassy’. But really…it’s just distracting and childish. Some intense stuff happens in the chapter I just read but I forgot all of it because the author was trying to make his character funny and different and it completely fell flat.

    It’s disappointing because the other work this guy turned in was pretty good…

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 9:20 AM #

      I think that authors perhaps feel pressured to write ‘sassy’ because they think they have to be funny in order to be successful, but snappy comebacks aren’t all there is to comedy, it’s just the easiest, crudest form available.

  5. Aurora Blackguard March 1, 2011 at 5:01 AM #

    When you say sassy, I think of girls in cheerleading outfits or shiny sparkly pink stuff. Personally, the word sassy never came off as a good adjective to describe a heroine – it sounds so Disney-tween-coined and kiddy that you really can’t argue that the girl has a real adult or spirit in her except for her ability to mouth off.

    Character that’s strong without being sassy? I have to say Katsa from GRACELING. Because THAT’S what sassy is. I DO admit to having a slight affection for girls who always know what the right comeback is but not all the time. That’s just being a smart aleck royal-pain-in-the-butt.

    Good job, Sav! Totally willing to be your priest, any time 🙂

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 9:20 AM #

      You make an excellent point. ‘Sassy’ characters get reduced to that single adjective. I haven’t read Graceling yet 😦

      • Aurora Blackguard March 2, 2011 at 11:22 AM #

        Go go go go! 😀 I was just thinking that you would love it!

        • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 4, 2011 at 12:37 PM #

          I love GRACELING. I actually reread it a few weeks ago, and it made me happy!

  6. Julie Eshbaugh March 1, 2011 at 7:35 AM #

    Great post, Savannah! Really good advice. 🙂

  7. Liz March 1, 2011 at 8:15 AM #

    Thank goodness! I’m so tired of seeing sass/sarcasm coming from characters whose circumstances make that sass unbelievable (ie, servants, non-noble mains snarking off to princes, rebels in extremely authoritarian societies). It makes the whole setting so much less credible when the character can be sassy, rude, and ignorant of the consequences, despite being forged in a world where everyone else is getting their heads chopped off for defiance. There’s so many more interesting outlets for making your MC subversive, and if you want her to be strong, at least for crying out loud give her some common sense instead.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 9:21 AM #

      Yes, the classic ‘mouthing off to royalty’ ploy! Doesn’t make you brave, just kind of an idiot, lol.

  8. Rowenna March 1, 2011 at 9:10 AM #

    Great points–I fully agree. A character can be a little sarcastic to great effect–or really sarcastic to little effect, if that makes sense. I see this kind of sass as a mask for insecurity in real life–so I think it can work well used that way in fiction. The character is actually pretty insecure, so she overcompensates by being sassy. But as an actual strength? A standalone personality trait? Sorry, doesn’t cut it for me.

    I see this as especially grating in historical fiction. Not only annoying regardless of era, it’s pretty inaccurate to have a mouthy female in some historical time periods. So she really couldn’t get any respect or get much done by being a smart-a$$–and to me, a strong character gets stuff done.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 9:21 AM #

      I can’t agree more with what you said.

  9. Laura Diamond March 1, 2011 at 9:26 AM #

    Good point. Funnily enough, I think sass coming from the quirky side kick is “okay”…seems less annoying that way, LOL! But I agree, sassiness in an MC smacks too much of “whineyness” to me, like it’s easier to shoot off your mouth rather than do something worthwhile.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 10:06 AM #

      Yup, it’s totally easier to make snide remarks about the stench of your troll kidnappers than it is to actually fight them. It ties back into that active vs. passive thing… if you’re perfectly content to just make bad jokes when the bad guys aren’t around, then you’re a coward who can’t solve your own problems.

      On the other hand, I think making bad jokes WHILE fighting is really campy, a la Army of Darkness.

      It’s a really, really hard balance to walk, and I know I can’t do it.

  10. Marina March 1, 2011 at 10:03 AM #

    Geez, thank you! Gah, I hate it when a character is running her mouth off when it’s unnecessary to her friends, parents, coworkers, authority or the love interest. I mean, if this happened in real life, that person wouldn’t have many friends because every single person they meet would hate them for being a little bitch. Coworkers would avoid them like the plague. And I doubt they would be able to keep any job for any amount of time. I mean sass is good, but only until the point when the character just crosses the line in the readers point of view, but is somehow admired in the novel (and you go WTF?). And when they’re “sassy” to parents? I usually think of how many ways my parents would murder me in if I ever said anything like that, no matter how nice they usually are. What about the love interest? I mean how is the guy (or usually five) supposed to fall in love with a character who keeps bitching at him all the time? It might seem cute at first, but then again, he’s gonna run for the hills after awhile.
    So most of the time it’s completely unbelievable and I just want to slap the MC across the face, or better yet I stop reading because I can’t stop rolling my eyes. And usually the author also cites some past traumatic trauma, which I know is supposed to be touching and you’re supposed to feel bad, but it usually turns out sounding contrived. Mostly because the MC turns 180 degrees in character and suddenly becomes nice. I mean, people change, but not because they told one other character their life story.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 10:08 AM #

      Perhaps sassy characters are popular, or perceived to be popular, because they say the stuff we think inside but would never say out loud? So when you see someone actually do it, readers are like ‘yeah, way to go! I wish I was that brave!’

      But in reality there’s a good reason we keep our nasty thoughts to ourselves -we’d be socially ostracized otherwise, not necessarily because we ‘dared’ to have negative opinions, but because it’s freaking annoying to have to listen to someone’s snark every ten seconds.

      • Marina March 1, 2011 at 12:33 PM #

        I thought of that too, it makes a lot of sense. But I feel like a lot of the times the line is crossed. Which I think is the reason why so many people are also annoyed with them. Especially, like you said, sassy doesn’t always make for a strong character, I mean, instead of running of their mouth, they could be doing something to move the plot along, like kicking some bad guy booty!

  11. Heather March 1, 2011 at 1:46 PM #

    I think Elizabeth brings up a good point about sassy male characters…I think it shows how this issue goes deeper than fiction and reflects certain gender perceptions that have formed over the past 20-30 years.

    Really, there are four types of characters (that I can think of anyways) that are “allowed” to be sassy: the “strong” female protagonist, the best gay friend, the girl friend foil to a sweet female protagonist, or the (usu. male) villain. Looking at it from this perspective, it’s easy to see how not only is it considered “good” for a woman to be sassy, but it is “deviant*” for a man to be sassy. Really, as it seems a lot of us here feel, sass is bad coming out of ANYONE’S mouth.

    What does this teach young girls about how they should act? What does this teach young boys about how they should expect to be treated from their girlfriends or spouses? Sass is degrading…to those that are sassy and those that are on the receiving end. I think we play a dangerous game when we equate “strong” femininity with anything that is “deviant*”/”surprising”/”counter-culture.”

    I think a strong woman is a good person. She is kind, she is opinionated, she is intelligent and she sacrifices and gives of herself to help others; she is not needy or crass or misandristic and she does not flaunt about with a gross sense of entitlement.

    *Deviant: outside of social norms; contrary to social expectations (not necessarily “evil” as one might expect)

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 11:57 PM #

      Wow, I love this comment. I can’t even think of anything to say except, “I agree!”

      • Heather March 2, 2011 at 4:12 AM #

        Aw, thanks! I love your post; I’m so glad there’s so much love around these parts! =)

  12. zalijun March 1, 2011 at 2:43 PM #

    Could you give us an example of a “sassy” character that is more of a brat allowed to run her mouth off than an actual strong heroine? I’ve always thought that sass was a good thing in that you voice your opinions and don’t let people walk over you but you’re still respectful.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 11:58 PM #

      Actually I can’t. Because if I can’t stand the MC I put the book down, lol. But I see a lot of amateur work, and especially query letters, that sub sass for character.

      • zalijun March 2, 2011 at 12:54 AM #

        LOL. It’s okay. I usually end up doing the same thing which is probably why I had trouble thinking of one and thought to ask you. 😄

  13. Sierra Gardner March 1, 2011 at 5:22 PM #

    Great post! My favorite female characters are the strong and silent kind. I particularly love Anne Elliot from Persuasion. I love that she is kind and gentle, but also figures out by the end of the book how to stand up for herself and pursue her own dreams. I feel like often times being ‘strong’ is just an excuse for bad behavior.

    • savannahjfoley March 1, 2011 at 11:59 PM #

      I’m a strong&silent lover, too. I try to show the other side of the spectrum: teens that aren’t really quirky or outgoing, but quiet and logical.

  14. Alexander M Zoltai March 2, 2011 at 3:26 AM #

    “causticity” — *Love* it 🙂

    Thought at first you’d formed a neologism but at least one dictionary confirmed its usage — *Love* it!

    So glad I read your post. There are far too many women who think they must act like immature adult men; we don’t need more in literature…

    I added your blog to my Blogroll: http://nfaa.wordpress.com/

    • savannahjfoley March 2, 2011 at 9:07 AM #

      I do have a bad habit of making up words, so I’m glad that one exists somewhere. I’d be terribly disappointed if it didn’t.

  15. Mac_V March 3, 2011 at 1:13 PM #

    HECK YES Ella Enchanted. She is one of my favorite heroines because she is never really rescued. She saves herself. She talks her way out of getting eaten because she’s good with languages, and she breaks her own curse by truly FIGHTING IT. No one saves her. She just kicks ass on her own.

    I. Love. Ella.

    Mac

    • Vanessa Di Gregorio March 4, 2011 at 12:39 PM #

      She is a brilliant female character – definitely a fave of mind. I reread ELLA ENCHANTED all the time, and I never get bored of Ella!

    • Audrey February 19, 2015 at 2:06 PM #

      Yeah, because of a deus ex machina magical power she suddenly has. Funny, Ella actually fits the obnoxious sassy character to an absolute T. She’s disrespectful and sarcastic but everyone who isn’t her straw man evil stepfamily just finds her so charming and witty. Gag. She wasn’t even very grateful for all Mandy did for her. And she’s even worse in that awful Anne Hathaway movie.

  16. MD Irvine March 4, 2011 at 12:24 PM #

    True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is one of my favorites. I agree with your post. Somehow sassy tends to be mostly smart-mouthed FMC leaving snide/sarcastic comments and I find it annoying. I try to imagine knowing someone who did that all the time and I would get tired of it especially if nothing is being DONE abut said comments like the point you made about active and passive characters.
    Speaking of times when female characters weren’t usually sassy or talked back, did you ever read the Naughtiest Girl Series by Enid Blyton.

  17. Sara December 24, 2013 at 12:26 PM #

    Sassy writes about sassy huh? Takes one to know one and honestly… Your passage sounds pretty sassy, and fresh, and impertinent, and imprudent, and saucy, and overbold, and vigorous, and lively!!!! Good luck with your other passages. You’ll need it😳

    • Jax September 21, 2014 at 12:01 AM #

      Don’t be mad because your book sucks

  18. shesnosaint April 24, 2014 at 10:33 PM #

    Pretty sexist.

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