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Sympathetic Characters: Self-Reflection versus “Wallowing”


Sympathetic Characters: Self-Reflection versus “Wallowing”

I have noted before, in other posts, how fast and hard I tend to get rolling when an action scene approaches. Since I am fast on the keyboard, I tend to write fast and furiously in approaching and describing action. I love action scenes, and relish the chance to present them to my readers.


But I know that, unless an author is willing to “write shallow” – that is, to move from one action scene to the next without allowing the characters to reflect on the meaning of the action – then the author must allow the characters to consider the meaning of… well… of everything: of the action scenes, of the overall plot, maybe even of life itself. Without that, the story becomes nothing more than one long string of action scenes connected by “action bridges.”


Not much there.


In my soon to be released novel, A Fearful Thing – the fifth novel in the Rebecca Series – one of the characters falls apart emotionally after she and her love interest are rescued from what appeared to be near-certain death. That character, Marie Campbell, having been saved by her rescuers, finds herself being transported away, finally safe, in a highway patrol vehicle. Once she begins to reflect on what has happened, she also begins to focus on the fact that at no point did she do anything to help the rescuers, nor did she say anything brave or encouraging to Jack McGriff, who had been captured with her.


So, on reflection, she feels humiliated by her own behavior, and finds herself sinking into something like self-disgust. At that moment, McGriff, sitting next to her in the van, leans over and says quietly in her ear, “Stop it, Marie. This self-blaming and self-pity is not you. It’s nothing to do with our faith…. Just stop it.”


She tries.

He continues.

“Recognize what has happened today for what it has actually been: a tapestry woven of equal parts Good and Evil. And Evil predominated early on…. But Evil has been overcome as the day has advanced, Marie. You and I have been rescued, and we have been rescued without loss of life to friend or enemy…. Just be thankful, Marie.”

Wallowing in self-blaming or self-pity is not an attractive trait. If an author’s good characters are to be read as sympathetic characters by most readers, those characters will need to be thoughtful always, sad at times, but never seeming to like self blaming. Never seeming to enjoy self recrimination. Never seeming to prefer self disgust to its alternatives: self forgiveness, self acceptance, self resolve.

In fact, good characters need to exhibit very little patience with those who “wallow” in self pity and self condemnation. Love for them, yes. Compassion for them, certainly. A helping hand extended to them, of course. But always coupled with Jack McGriff’s admonition, delivered in love, to Marie Campbell:


“Stop it, Marie. This self blaming and self pity is not you. It’s nothing to do with our faith…. Just stop it.”



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