We generally craft characters with the intention of making them someone the reader cares about. One of the primary ways to achieve that is to tap into reader empathy, and that’s largely achieved by showing what the character lacks in their “ordinary world” life. But sometimes, we unintentionally present our characters in ways that turn readers off. Without meaning to, we miss the mark of empathy and instead conjure pity. And though you’d think a pitiful character tugs at readers’ heartstrings, pity creates a divide between the reader and the character. Readers don’t want to identify with someone who is self-pitying or who perceives themselves as a victim.
The good news is that there are things we can do to earn empathy and to avoid pity. Let’s talk through 5 techniques that make the reader need to know how the story turns out because they can imagine themselves in the character’s shoes.
Let Your Protagonist Be Ignorant to Their Circumstances.
Story can arguably be distilled to one question that drives it from start to finish: Is your character capable of change? If the character is blaming or envying others, directly pointing to what they lack and how terrible life is without it, overly-aware of their plight, or exuding any other behaviors that spell “victim,” you’re veering into The Danger Zone. Self-pity is one of the primary ways readers are turned off, no matter how likable we think our characters are. Worse, if it seems your character suggests that their circumstances are someone else’s fault or they’re just not as fortunate as others, you’ve written your character’s story off right out of the gate. Readers need to see that the ability to change is within the character’s own hands–not in those of anyone else. If it seems it’s someone else who needs changing, why tell your protagonist’s story at all?
How to avoid the pity party? Avoid using direct phrasing for what your character wants or needs, even if done through a third-person narrator. Let us glean those wants and needs indirectly in what they say and do. Avoid language that suggests envy, blame, or other characters needing to realize something or change in some way. Instead, craft actions and dialogue for your character that have them wrestling with what they can do to change their own circumstances in order to deliver themselves to what they ultimately want or need.
Limit the Amount of Time Your Narrator Has the Microphone.
Sometimes, our writing can suffer from a case of “chatty-narrator syndrome.” The narrator talks at the reader too much, letting them in on every thought and feeling, including pointing to the things the character wants and needs. This doesn’t leave any space for the reader to work, and the character begins to feel high-maintenance. Needy. And even too controlling because they overly handle the narrative. Direct narrative is a notorious gateway to self-pity. Though first-person narrators can be especially guilty of this, it’s important to note that this can happen with a third-person narrator, too.
Chatty-narrator syndrome fails to build trust between the writer and the reader. As writers, we worry readers aren’t noticing how messed up our character’s situations are or how they came to be that way. We fear readers aren’t seeing what the character needs, and we decide to point it out. Heavily. Directly. Annoyingly. Chatty-narrator syndrome is almost always due to us as writers not trusting ourselves to show what we need to show, and not trusting our readers to notice it. Tell your narrator to step away from the microphone, and let the scenes of your story show us what we are meant to notice and feel about your character’s life.
Put Your Character into Circumstances That Reveal Their Wounds.
Sometimes we craft opening scenes because they just came to us or because we imagine that’s where the story starts. But intentionality in crafting scene events is crucial. What external action might your character experience that lets us glean what they lack? Consider characters that can provoke your character to reveal hints of their wounds to us. What might other characters do or say to reveal your character’s baggage? Consider locations and external events that might bring your character’s wounds to the surface. What type of event would trigger “side effects” of your character’s backstory wounds in a way that relies on showing instead of telling?
In Deb Caletti’s HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD, protagonist Anabelle encounters teenage boys as she waits in line for her fast-food order. Her anxiety rises as she notices sensory-based details about the boys, and she takes off running. Literally. And that event with those carefully-chosen characters is enough to let us start working out what’s possibly gone wrong in her backstory.
Think of circumstances that can noticeably make your character uncomfortable, or show them deliberately ignoring what’s happening around them. The first quarter is all about the character resisting change. Refusing to act. Reluctant to try new actions. What might you throw your character’s way that can elicit those types of responses?
Start Developing the Logic For Your Character’s Wounds Early And Often.
It’s crucial that your narrator–whoever they may be–start offering up clues about your character’s backstory and why it’s still in play. If all we do is hint at things that trigger our characters, the reader will start to feel frustrated. They will see us behind the words pointing to the character’s wounds, which will begin to feel like pity if the why piece of things isn’t developed.
As you let the reader glean your character’s “lack,” offer them steady puzzle pieces that begin building out the full picture of why your character carries the exact baggage that they carry. Resist the urge to withhold. The more we think we’re manipulating tension by not showing clues of why our characters are how they are, we risk readers leaving our stories. Still, it’s worth a word of caution that giving the why away too quickly and in one fell swoop can overwhelm a reader, too. Instead, piece by piece, one scene at a time, help the reader work through what your character lacks and how that lack came to exist.
In HEART IN A BODY IN THE WORLD, we meet protagonist Anabelle as closed off and unable to openly talk about whatever past she has. This starts to signal to us that whatever went wrong in her backstory, it’s painful. Traumatic. It’s so horrific that it’s going to take time to reveal it. And because we’re only getting clue drops, we’re intrigued, free to feel empathy, and not overwhelmed by a massive suitcase of woe. Caletti masterfully doles out one puzzle piece at a time of how Anabelle is in her ordinary world life, and how she became that way.
Employ a Narrative Perspective That Puts Your Reader Inside Your Character’s Skin as Much as Possible.
Readers are more likely to empathize and identify with our protagonist if we use an intimate point of view, one that puts the reader inside the character’s mind and body. An intimate point of view gives readers exclusive access to a flawed character’s perspective. It allows readers to make an easier connection with a character. Consider the use of a viewpoint such as first-person, or third-person close. In using a viewpoint that brings readers as close as possible to your character, you maximize their engagement with the story. Think of ways to help readers feel as though they are one and the same with your protagonist. To feel the character’s lack as though it’s the reader’s own. Just be sure to avoid that dreaded chatty-narrator syndrome.
What other ways do you find help you as a reader empathize with the character? Which craft techniques tend to make you pity the character? As a reader, do you mind pity in a character, or do you prefer to see the character positioned to change their circumstances as a result of their own actions? Chime in!
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Terrific advice. It’s easy to take things too far when trying to make readers empathize, and it really is all about that balance, and the character’s own self-awareness.
Marissa Graff says
Self-awareness is so often the thing that rubs readers the wrong way. This can be tricky because we want a character to be aware of how their own actions are negatively impacting them. But if the self-awareness veers into the place where the character views themselves as a victim of circumstances, the immediate reaction of a reader is to distance themselves from the character. Readers don’t want to perceive *themselves* as a victim and so they choose to not identify with the character. If I haven’t shouted its praises enough, I think this is where using THE EMOTIONAL WOUND THESAURUS is so helpful. We can build in symptoms of the character’s circumstances impacting them negatively without being heavy-handed. And in focusing on behaviors, we reduce that urge to rely on narrative telling that often leads to the pity-party. Sincere gratitude for asking me to share with your readers!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
AW, thank you for saying that, Marissa! I agree, the focus should be on showing through behavior. I think another thing for writers to keep in mind that where we want characters to get is to replace the self-view of “victim” with “survivor.” We’ve consulted more than a few psychologists over the years and they have reiterated what you’ve said here – people who have been through trauma don’t want to think of themselves as victims and seeing that term can be triggering. As readers may have trauma in common with our characters, we want to remember that.
Thinking in terms of surviving is empowering and can lead a person to more growth and change, and that’s what we want in character arc (and in life!).
BECCA PUGLISI says
Boy, good writing is so often just knowing how much is too much. This is another instance where critique partners can be such a big help, seeing the things we can’t. Thanks, Marissa!
Marissa Graff says
Becca, that is SUCH a good point! We’re usually so close to our characters and so protective of them that we can’t always tell objectively when we’re moving into the pity-party mode. Having outside eyes is a fantastic way to avoid it. Add that to the list of strategies 🙂 Thank you for allowing me to support writers today!
MINDY ALYSE WEISS says
Thanks so much for another helpful post, Marissa. I had an MC that threw too much of a pity party for herself. These are all great ways to avoid it!
Marissa J Graff says
Hi, Mindy! Oh boy, have I been there myself in my own writing. For me, it always comes back to not trusting myself to have shown what I need the reader to notice. When I revise, I find that if I question a line in terms of being overly pitiful, I don’t hesitate. I cut it. If I even *think* it’s possibly signaling self-pity, then it goes. Far easier to go back and add things in if a beta reader isn’t feeling empathy than to get a second chance once we’ve turned a reader off. Thank you sincerely for having me today!