On Character Traits, Part I: Self-Pity


Before I start a series of posts on character traits that I just can’t stand or that are very difficult for an author to manage, I’d like to clarify that every character needs weaknesses and flaws. None of us is perfect, and we all do things that annoy other people. Our characters can’t be any different, or they won’t come off as human and the reader cannot relate to them. That said, there are some character traits in particular that drive me batty, and I figured it could be interesting to write a series of posts about them, examining the pitfalls I find they hide and the ways a writer can employ such a common trait without alienating the reader from a character he or she’s meant to like, or at least root for and somewhat care about. All right: disclaimer accomplished. Onward and upward!


cue the melodrama!!!

cue the melodrama!!!

Scarlett O’Hara, anyone?

While “Gone With the Wind” is one of my favorite novels, it’s not because of Scarlett. It’s because of Rhett. Characters who waste time and energy feeling sorry for themselves annoy me like few other characters do, even those who can’t shut their mouths even to suck in air (like Miss Bates in Emma or Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.)

The reason self-pity annoys me so much from characters is because I, as a reader, necessarily have a perspective about the situation the character lacks. I know, perhaps, of other characters in a much more dire situation than the girl moping about how much her life sucks, and that makes it hard for me to relate to said character and her “Woe is me!” displays/fits. It’s the same deal with your average reality tv star, and the precise reason I NEVER watch reality TV.

Ironically enough, a self-pitying character is one of the major reasons I’m having such trouble with my NaNoWriMo WIP, “The Esclavan Abductions.” Princess Melinda, granted, isn’t locking herself up in her room and refusing to come out and feeling sorry for herself over nothing. Her reputation has been totally ruined by a lying, scumbag nobleman, and so she has no marriage prospects and no life ahead of her, as she would view it. The problem? (Well, apart from the fact that I’m putting more emphasis on romance than I maybe should, based on my post On Romantic Relationships in Fantasy Fiction?)

She’s still living comfortably in a palace, of all places. Her brothers and her closest friends understand she never invited the scumbag noble into her room who attacked her and tried to rape her, as he had reasons to think he could do so with impunity. So even though Melinda has legitimate reasons to be upset about this situation—and the fact that the man she loves is a guardsman, a commoner, and therefore never any marriage prospect adds to her frustration—I think the first draft takes her a bit too far into self-pity. I do, however, know of some ways to fix the problem. Because you see, it’s an issue of degree; it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Therefore, I can focus on minimization later on and:

  1. TONE IT DOWN. This means fewer tears. Tame the dialogue/thoughts Melinda takes part in relating to her situation, mainly through cutting large sections. When a character must descend in the depths of self-pity, the fewer words dedicated to his or her fall, the better. In my case, it shouldn’t be too hard to have Melinda fixate less on her problems and consider larger issues. Her problem with the scumbag noble is related to a major risk her family’s taking for her sake, to get her justice, so there you go. She can dedicate more energy to the bigger picture, the one involving her brothers as well as her, and that will make her more likeable.
  2. MAKE SURE THERE’S A LEGITIMATE CAUSE FOR THE SELF-PITY. Don’t have the self-pity be a major over-reaction. If a character’s going to really delve into feeling sorry for herself, this effect should be equivalent to the cause. As in, that cause should not something as run-of-the-mill as an impossible/unrequited love. Unfortunately, this is part of Melinda’s problem. She loves her guardsman. Well, everyone goes through some potential relationship that never can really take off. Everyone gets over it at some point. It sucks, but….
  3. MAKE SURE SHE ACKNOWLEDGES AN IMPOSSIBLE LOVE IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. The romance storyline is my biggest headache right now. It’s just gone over-the-top, to the point that it’s annoying even me. Not good. I need to make sure it’s plain that while Melinda acknowledges it’s unfortunate she can’t pursue a relationship with Danby, it’s by far the end-all-be-all of her existence. I have a great plan in store for this in the second book of the series. The problem is, if I don’t do something to acknowledge this fact in the first book, people will be so annoyed by the melodrama they won’t even get that far.
  4. INVOLVE OTHER SUBPLOTS IN THE NOVEL. It’s a good idea to throw attention to other characters, ones who do not have such tendencies to pity themselves. This is a good way to de-emphasize self-pity scenes, even if they are related to a major character. In my case, while Melinda is one of my point-of-view characters, or a focus of narration, I have another, a sorcerer named Zate, who is nothing at all like her. I’ll probably insert Zate scenes or move scenes around to break up Melinda’s storyline into smaller, more digestable chunks.

8 responses to “On Character Traits, Part I: Self-Pity

  1. Though I would think that while paying attention to all those points not to forget that it’s human nature to be blinded at least for a time by our own misfortunes. It isn’t something that one ever completely avoids, snaps out of immediately or without at least a lively internal debate, or never sneaks back in now and again. it can be more realistic to endure the self-pity for a couple pages, even explore the process of ‘putting your big girl panties on’ so to speak (if crudely). It can also add a good solid ‘it’s okay, even necessary, to have to really work at it to be/become strong’ relatability to readers.

    • some very good points there! everything you say is spot on. the key is finding the point where self-pity crosses from being human to being an ingrained character trait that just lingers and lingers for things that are no major deal. Perspective comes into play–how bad is this, really?–as does, like you said, some consideration of just being human and sometimes falling in the dumps. That’s definitely ok-and like you said, realistic-to have happen with a character. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Pingback: On Character Traits, Part II: Fear | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  3. Pingback: On Character Traits, Part III: No Common Sense | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  4. A brief read-through to check for missing words would have been helpful to the readers of this post. Paragraph five, sentence two would benefit from some authorly attention. Great subject, though. I don’t apreciate it when a good book goes sour because a main character cries on her bed for a week or so. However, it is perfectly natural after a traumatic experience to request the presence of close friends and even to have your best friend stay with you all night just in case the crime is tried again. I know I wouldn’t want to spend any time completely alone if I’d been attacked and/or accused of something I hadn’t done.

    • sorry about the missing word. I overlooked it during editing…. fixed it now. Thanks for dropping by, Anna! I like how you talk about not going over the top with, but some reaction to trauma is necessary and believable.

  5. Pingback: What Makes Readers Invest In a Frustrating Character? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  6. Pingback: AUTHORS: on balancing personal struggles with action in creative writing | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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