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?
Help me think this one through please internet.