The danger of pity

Posted: December 13, 2013 in reading, writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Should we ever make our readers pity our characters?

It might seem like a natural way to build empathy and support. But when we pity a character we aren’t just acknowledging their suffering. We’re seeing them as vulnerable, as a victim of others or of circumstances. Pity is about seeing the weakness and suffering of others from our own position of strength.

This is a dangerous thing in writing. If we start to pity a character then we see them as less powerful, less in command of their own destiny. We aren’t seeing their ability to cope, we’re just seeing their suffering and, in a sense, belittling them into the role of victim. Doing that to a protagonist can really undermine them.

Of course it can also add depth and nuance. Look at The Hunger Games. Katniss is a complex character. Feeling pity sometimes plays into that. But it’s part of why she isn’t really a strong role model, for all that she’s a wonderful character. This isn’t someone idealised. It’s someone in trouble and turmoil, unable to take control of their life.

Big damn fashion hero

Big damn fashion hero – not words I ever expected to type

By contrast, Cinna the stylist takes a brave action in Catching Fire that has terrible consequences for him. Should we pity him? Or, given that he’s making a sacrifice for others, should we just admire his nobility, not weakening that with pity? Is there room for both, seeing a strong character laid low by his circumstances, forced to choose between right and safety?

My own thoughts on this are still half formed, inspired by an email from the Raptor but still seeking clarity. So what do you think? Is pity the right response to a character like Cinna? Is it a feeling we can nurture towards characters without undermining them? How is it best used in writing, and can you point out some good examples?

Help me think this one through please internet.

  1. everwalker says:

    I thought I recognised some of this conversation!

    My debate with the Raptor on this revolved around whether heroism can be pitied. You can pity the circumstances which require heroism, but the choice to do what’s right and the acts of bravery themselves aren’t pitiable, they’re laudable. The consequences for those actions are – in Cinna’s case – known and accepted before the actions are taken. Does that make them deserving of pity? I’m still not sure, to be honest. Perhaps the right word is not pity so much as regret.

    • That last thing you said is I think what I’m coming round to through all this – that it should be about sadness of regret rather than pity.

      I’m not sure that heroism in itself exempts an action from pity – what about people doing heroic things for misguided causes? (of course ‘misguided’ is as much a judgement call as ‘heroic’) If you’re going to pity anyone, wouldn’t they deserve it?

  2. Ben Hodgson says:

    Pity is a strange one – I try to avoid it. I have no problem with a helpless protagonist – I think it can bring out their humanity and a dose of realism, but given that a lot of people seek empowerment through fantasy it is often distasteful to disempower them. As for eliciting pity in the reader – I can’t help but agree that this act would demean the character.

    To feel ‘sorry for them’ when they have acted as an individual would be like feeling sorry for Romeo and Juliet. Sure, it’s a common enough reaction, but it’s a selfish one. Pity does belittle, as you say, and would seem to serve the reader more in making them ‘feel better’ about the tragedy before them. The suffering character reaps the cruel harvest of cherishing some noble ideal in a vicious world. This may well conflict with moralising tales where good things happen to good people. Pity expresses something like, ‘I would help you if I could’, and perhaps, ‘You don’t deserve this’. Through this kind of hypothetical conditional expression of solidarity, the reader alleviates the tension they feel on behalf of the character’s helplessness and reinforces a moral framework of what ‘should’ happen to the character. This makes eliciting pity an effective method of trying to reinforce a moral/conceptual status quo, but without necessarily challenging our ethical behaviour. i.e. We may recognise a bad situation, without recognising how our actions could influence or change that situation. Through pity casting the character as victim, and disempowering both them and us via some masturbatory catharsis, we stand back and watch the scene unfold, and repeat itself time after time.

    Pity does not help the recipient directly, and to know that you are pitied may offer some solace in that your are judged favourably by others, but pity is more likely to be rejected when people feel martyred. To clarify: Entering into a pitiable state, when done with foreknowledge and awareness of the consequences, requires a sacrifice. When this sacrifice is performed with regard to a powerful ideal, the consequences are outweighed, but this situation highlights a ‘flaw’ in the world. i.e. Jane needed to sacrifice herself to achieve x, in a world where x was not easy. For another person to then pity Jane fails to recognise/address the underlying problem in the world that led to x requiring a sacrifice. For the martyr, this is a horrendous situation – as it ignores the greater significance of the sacrifice, meant to invite and inspire others to overcome by example.

    Imagine the climax of Romeo and Juliet where they are effectively manipulated by a malicious playwright into their mutual destruction, and how it feels given that they were puppets of a trite moralising demon. Bound up into the tragedy, they may truly elicit pity for actions beyond their control, and in so far as we, the onlookers, are truly powerless to intervene, pity is one of our few recourses. But we are not powerless, in that our own response is still up for debate. In this case, it is too late to save fair Romeo and Sweet Juliet from their fate, but the implications of their sacrifice ripple through us. Beyond pity there is the call to action, to remedy the archetypal perversity that repeatedly leads to tragedy.

    • That’s a fascinating analysis – thank you very much Ben. I find this idea that the pity is somehow about us and resolving our tensions, rather than about the subject of the pity, a really interesting one. It certainly sheds a different light on responses of pity to real life and news stories. And if fiction is to be of value then part of that value is surely in refining how we react to the real world.

  3. I was immediately put in mind of Thomas Covenant from Stephen Donaldson. In that case, I think feelings of pity for the character’s predicament meant that his triumphs came across more strongly.

    • That’s an interesting example. I had a rather different reaction to the one Covenant book that I read. He was such a dark and abrasive character that it kept me from pitying him, even when I empathised. But I found the whole tone of that story odd – not bad odd, but not the sort of odd that would grip me and get me reading the other books.

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