Recently, I read a thriller novel about a middle-aged female detective we’ll call Cheryl. Having spent all her twenties and thirties working hundred-hour weeks to make detective, Cheryl wound up driving away her husband, and by the time she was forty-six, lived alone with no major relationships in her life. Cheryl admitted that her woes were entirely of her own making, but spent a lot of time feeling sorry for herself.
Which got me to thinking – how much self-pity is too much in a fictional character? Or, more specifically, how much self-pity is acceptable in a protagonist or a main character? If the villain feels sorry for himself while committing crimes, that can be part of his malevolence. (Think of the ungrateful debtor from the Bible, who was forgiven a debt of millions yet threw a man into prison over a trivial debt.) Yet self-pity is generally an annoying quality in the main character.
For some readers, no amount of self-pitying is acceptable, and they will immediately reject a book with a whiny protagonist. Yet one aspect of the human condition is that people feel sorry for themselves and sometimes complain about it. In Real Life, this can last for years – I once met a man who inevitably brought every conversation back to the social difficulties he suffered in high school twenty years ago. However, in fiction, this can become tedious. No one wants to read a 300 page novel about a protagonist who spends all his time whining and feeling sorry for himself.
I think there are three rules for a protagonist to feel self-pity without alienating the readers.
First, the character needs to have something worth self-pity, something significant enough that the reader will not feel contempt for the character. A character who feels pity because, say, his family died, will be far more sympathetic to the reader than a character who feels bad because all the treadmills are full at the gym or because McDonald’s ran out of chicken nuggets at lunch. In other words, the nature of the self-pity cannot inspire contempt for the protagonist in the reader.
For severe problems (death, injury, illness, financial ruin, mortal peril, and so on) this is easy. It becomes harder with a less threatening problem. For instance, consider the the classic love triangle – a woman trying to sort out her feelings for two different men. If the writer is not careful, the woman can quickly become unlikeable if she spends too much time dithering or bemoaning the necessity of the choice. The trick for self-pity is to make it understandable, even in problems that are not life-threatening. In THE KING’S SPEECH, the protagonist is in no physical danger, but after seeing all the suffering his speech impediment has caused him, it is entirely understandable that he feels sorry for himself and doesn’t want to try and overcome his impediment at first.
Second, if the character feels sorry for himself because of something he did, he needs to own up to it at some point. In Cheryl’s case, her self-pity was not annoying because she freely admitted that all her problems were her own fault – her obsessive focus on her job (in the fine tradition of dogged detectives everywhere) had driven away her husband, alienated all her friends, and left her alone. Now, if she had blamed everyone else for her problems while denying her own culpability in them, that would quickly have become annoying and made her a less compelling character. Cersei Lannister from A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE is an excellent example of such an unsympathetic character. Her misfortunes in the fourth and fifth books are almost entirely her fault, yet at no point does she realize that the blame lies with herself.
Third, the self-pity can be made part of the plot, allowing it to be overcome as part of the protagonist’s character arc. The essential nature of storytelling, boiled down, is about a character who faces a conflict as a result of a problem and resolves the conflict. This can be as kinetically violent as Conan of Cimmeria killing the evil sorcerer Tsotha-lanti, or (to cite another example from the Bible) as quiet as the prodigal son reuniting with his father after squandering his inheritance. Self-pity can be part of the conflict to be overcome. Properly handled, the self-pity can become part of the protagonist’s character arc.
The parable of the prodigal son is an excellent example of this. After moving to a foreign land and squandering his inheritance, the prodigal son spent time bemoaning his fate and feeding pigs to support himself. Like the detective Cheryl or Cersei Lannister, his problems were entirely of his own making. (Though to be fair, Cheryl had been hunting down murderers while the prodigal son had been partying with prostitutes.) However, unlike Cersei Lannister, the prodigal son realized that his problems were his own fault, and traveled home to beg forgiveness of his father.
To sum up, I think the best use of self-pity in fiction is as part of a character’s arc, as something that is eventually resolved one way or another. Like any other storytelling tool, it can be overused, but when employed well, it can contribute to a powerful story.