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.
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?
I considered reviewing the film of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but it would have just been a gushing stream of enthusiasm. For brevity’s sake, my review is this: ‘it’s great, go see it’. To add some nuance, here are three reasons you should also read the book:
While Jennifer Lawrence gives a brilliant performance as Katniss Everdeen, the books let you really get inside her head. Suzanne Collins does an amazing job of showing rather than telling just how traumatised Katniss is, and of drawing you into her interior world without making the books slow. She also manages to make readers understand things that Katniss doesn’t, even though the whole story is told from Katniss’s viewpoint. It’s an incredibly skilled piece of writing.
Turning a book into a film inevitably means cutting things out. The film’s producers chose the right things to drop, but those details are still worth experiencing. There are secondary characters in the book who aren’t in the film and who add real depth to the world, as well as details of the rebels’ plan that are pleasingly clever.
Katniss isn’t the only tragic figure in these stories, or the only one worth more time than the film can give. My heart breaks every time I watch Peeta Mellark try to survive a fake relationship with the woman he loves, and I sometimes want to scream at Katniss for not understanding how much she’s hurting him. While Josh Hutcherson is terrific as Peeta* the book gives you time to really appreciate his situation.
So go see this film and read this book. They’re both brilliant.
* The consistent quality of the performances in the film also reflects well on Francis Lawrence’s direction – there’s barely a false note from anyone in the thing.