Tuesday, January 6, 2009
I came across a question on the Absolute Write forums about having characters with low self-esteem. It made me stop to think, mostly because my knee-jerk response was a dislike of such characters. And knee-jerk reactions are usually not as productive as thoughtful analyses.
My response stemmed partly from the fact that I was raised in a family and a culture that stressed achievement and success at all costs. However, another part of it is that low self-esteem isn’t often the kind of quality that attracts people. We’re drawn towards confidence, whether that quality is expressed by an applicant for a job, a date or a nation’s leader.
You could balance this out, having such a character project confidence in public while worrying about their performance or showing their vulnerabilities in private. I’ve done that on a few occasions, smiling and talking my way into a job while hoping no one can see me sweat.
But that would be understandable nervousness or performance anxiety rather than the kind of crippling inner nothingness that comes to mind when I think of really low self-esteem. That kind of character is one who probably never even takes the spotlight because he knows in advance that he’s going to fail.
What could be done with such a person? Well, most of the time, this would be a comic character. Seinfeld did wonderfully with that kind of neurosis, and so did Red Dwarf, which I discussed in a previous blog post. But what if you’re hoping for the readers to take such a character seriously? Or, heaven help you, like such a person?
Low self-esteem is one of the few flaws that can really torpedo a character – more so than greed, promiscuity, dishonesty and a lot of other negative traits. Some of those can even come off as edgy and cool, given the right circumstances. But a character who’s inept, who screws up, who achieves nothing and who hates herself as a result is unlikely to result in the readers liking her. Their response is going to be more along the lines of pity, annoyance or relief that they’re not such a person.
So, how to make it work? One way would be to show why the character became this way, why she can’t make any friends or have normal close relationships, like the heroine of Dean Koontz’s Whispers. Understanding why someone behaves a certain way goes quite far in fleshing them out.
Another, very effective way for me is to show that the character tries his best to succeed. A character who believes he’s worthless and therefore sits on his hands isn’t going to be as interesting as a character who believes he’s worthless but longs to be different and at least attempts to change his sad condition. I think that’s why I liked Rimmer from Red Dwarf the moment I read that he was taking the astronavigation exam for the thirteenth time (even though he was as destined to fail as when he took it for the first time).
Such a character may or may not express self-pity for their condition, depending on what the writer wants to achieve. I’d feel more liking for someone who didn’t whine about feeling worthless, but if such a whine was funny or incisive enough, it would cancel out the annoyance.
So the success of such characters depends on how well they’re done – like most other aspects of writing. I’m glad I got over the knee-jerk reaction, though.
On another note, I signed up to be a book review blogger with Thomas Nelson, and picked What's age got to do with it? as my first book. Let's see how that goes.
Also, my application to college is nearly complete. I still need to provide proof of fluency in English, though.