More and more contemporary fiction presents with a normative voice that mixes third-person subjective narration with frequent first-person mental asides interwoven with the narration.

A completely made-up example:

Helen opened the door. She tried to keep the cats in. Dang those cats.

Sheeba, a black kitty, darted through her legs and down the steps; it crawled into an open vent and hid behind a bend in the duct work.

Now where did that stupid feline go?

“Sheeba, you come back up here right this minute,” Helen yelled.

You get the point.

This mode of writing admits to several structural weaknesses:

  • POV is supposed to be consistent — pick 1st, or 3rd, or whatever — and not vary paragraph by paragraph.
  • The narrator often knows something that the mental voice of the main character doesn’t, which makes the blending of the voices more jarring. For example, the narrator knows Sheeba is in the duct, but Helen doesn’t, yet the line of demarcation between Helen and the narrator is not clear. The reader, therefore, is left to sort out the inconsistencies.
  • It’s conventional to insert mental speech in italics, not as interwoven prose within narration.

Beyond structure, though, comes the single biggest fault with this mode of writing: Sarcasm.

Pick up titles written recently — some YA stuff comes to mind — and you may encounter the distressing theme of some hero or heroine main character living a rich yet overwhelmingly sarcastic mental life as played out to some degree in the voice of the narrator.

To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with introducing characters’ thoughts into a story. This inner dialogue, if done well, enlivens a story and adds more color to a character’s development.

The catch is that “if done well” part. Too many authors, especially those early in their writing career, tend to use sarcasm as the default inner voice of a character. Doesn’t matter what the character is like, viewed neutrally; in that character’s head, everything evokes a sarcastic answer.

Three big problems here:

  1. Sarcasm isn’t the default mental construct for a typical person.
  2. Sarcasm, when presented to excess, makes characters less likeable and less relatable.
  3. Sarcasm is usually a reflection of the author’s own smarm working its way into the story.

Sarcasm, in small doses, is fine. When it overwhelms with frequency or interweaves into objective narration, you’ve got a problem.

The Sarcastic Narrator
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