Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Low self-esteem

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.


A. Malone said...

Hey Marian, just wanted to say I recently started following your blog. I'm enjoying the posts, found you by curiously clicking your link from the Writers Beware blog from some of the comments.

As for characters with low self-esteem, strangely enough, I find myself disliking the characters around them more than the actual character in question. Or what really bugs me is when the main character has low self-esteem, no confidence, whines, and... for some reason the other characters love them anyways, or said love interest in the book ignores these flaws altogether.

But maybe that's an entirely different issue. =) Even so, I agree, low self-esteem is something that really has to be done well to work.

Good luck with your application!

Anonymous said...

This reminded me of a writer who used to be in my crit group. He'd been writing a novel for his "demons" (not the fantasy kind!), which was depression. His main character was suffering from severe depression and low self-esteem.

Everyone in the group had problems with the character. The constant self-pity that came through in the writing was so much that it made the character unlikable. There was, literally, nothing positive about the character.

And it was tough because all the opening scenes started out with only this person on the page. It was depression and self-pity right in the reader's face constantly--not something that made anyone want to turn the page. The author did try to revise it, but he couldn't shake the unlikable quality of the character without doing something more extreme to balance him out.

Marian Perera said...

Excellent point there that I overlooked, garridon: the other characters.

Red Dwarf would have been monotonous if everyone was sad and pathetic. The Hitch-hiker's Guide did well to have only one severely depressed character. Because there were other characters who liked themselves and enjoyed life, the self-pity and misery were diluted out.

So that's another thing that could help make such a character work: provide other, more positive characters.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Lyrist, good to see you here, and glad you enjoyed the posts!

What you mentioned is good advice for any character flaws. If the other characters love the protagonist despite his being depressed or dishonest or cannibalistic or whatever, then there's no need for the reader to like the protagonist. He's getting all the validation he needs already.

But if the other characters hate him, then the reader often rushes to the defense. Works like a charm, usually.

Thanks for the good wishes on the application. I'll let you all know if I get in. [fingers crossed]

colbymarshall said...

I like a character who isn't perfect, but I think a character with drastically low self esteem would turn me off

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm not sure that low self-esteem is the same as depression. Marvin in THHG is depressed but he doesn't have low self-esteem. In fact he constantly reminds people that he is far above the petty jobs they give him to do. "A brain the size of a planet and they want me to fetch the stowaways."

I could see how true low self-esteem could work, if you took a character that suffered from a lack of self-worth and showed her/him developing a sense of her/his own value over the course of the story.

I think that the characters that turn me off the most are the flawless ones who know how good they are and don't have self-doubts. A bit like in real life, I suppose.

ChristaCarol Jones said...

I haven't read too many books with the MC having low self esteem, though the first one that came to mind was Twilight. And honestly, Bella's character got on my nerves so much because of that very character trait. I wanted to thunk her on the side of the head several times, and the only real reason I plodded through was because of the story itself.

Marian Perera said...

I haven't read Twilight, Christa, but I've read a lot about it, and most of the positives focused on Edward rather than Bella.

Bella seems to be something of a placeholder into which readers could fit themselves. Just an impression that I got from reading reviews (and criticisms) but the low self-esteem part doesn't really surprise me.

Marian Perera said...

"I'm not sure that low self-esteem is the same as depression."

You're right, fairy hedgehog, it's not. Some characters can think very well of themselves but but depressed (like Marvin).

On the other hand, I tried to think of any characters who had low self-esteem and were still happy, and none came to mind. There are a lot of humble self-effacing characters, but that's not the same thing.

I didn't see that connection before.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Colby,

It would turn me off too. I want to feel that there's something good in the character I can cheer for, even if they don't realize it themselves and even if they think of themselves as no one special.

fairyhedgehog said...

Is low self-esteem different from humility in a character? I'm thinking of someone like Jane Eyre. It's a long time since I read the book so I may be wrong but I took away the impression of someone self-effacing. Maybe that isn't the same as having low self-esteem.

Marian Perera said...

When I think of self-effacement and humility, one character always comes to mind - Melanie from Gone with the Wind.

To me, she's self-effacing and humble because she she's shy and meek and often seems unaware of her own good qualities. She doesn't push herself forward or try to grab the spotlight - she's uncomfortable when she's the center of attention.

On the other hand, I believe her very first line of dialogue is a very polite disagreement with a gentleman about the merits of some author. So she's got enough self-confidence to stand up for a position she believes in (even if that means looking like a bluestocking), and years later on she goes against an entire town to defend her sister-in-law.

Melanie isn't openly confident and assertive, but she's got an inner strength and an awareness of her own priorities and beliefs - an awareness that isn't dependent on other people's opinions. So to me, that's self-esteem.

Sorry for rambling on like that, but GWTW is my favorite novel. :)

fairyhedgehog said...

I confess I've not yet read it. (Hiding my head in shame.) I know I really should do.

Marian Perera said...

I'd give you my copy if I hadn't already given it away. :)

I used to tutor a high school student who was halfway through the Gossip Girl series, so I insisted that she read GWTW.

She had to wrap the cover with brown paper because it showed the famous poster of Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs, and this was in the Middle East and her family was quite conservative. But I think she enjoyed the book.

fairyhedgehog said...

I would never have thought of Gone With the Wind needing to be wrapped in brown paper!