Writing Insecure Characters
Hey Hey!! I reached out to Becca at Writers Helping Writers (where I’ve been guest-posting for several months) to help me out with a guest post in the ongoing series on emotions. Don’t forget to check out the Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction Facebook group for details about the next 5 week deep pov intensive starting up Oct 4, 2021.
Thanks Becca!! *mittened fist-bump*
When Lisa asked if I’d like to contribute a post to her series on conveying emotions, I couldn’t resist. I mean, this is where Angela Ackerman and I got our start—telling anyone who was interested (and some who weren’t) what we’d learned about the importance of showing a character’s feelings. So let me start there—with a quote from The Emotion Thesaurus about why it’s so important for every author to get this right:
All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion. It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. The plot line becomes a dry riverbed of meaningless events that no reader will take time to read. Why? Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience.
But they don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves. To make this happen, we must ensure that our characters express their feelings in ways that are both recognizable and compelling to read.
How we convey a character’s emotional state is vital to the reader’s experience. They don’t want to be bashed over the head with this information, nor do they appreciate clunky methods that jerk them out of the story. This is where show-don’t-tell comes into play. Show the character’s emotion through their natural responses to it, and readers will figure it out on their own. Use universal responses, and you’ll have the added benefit of readers connecting to the character through a sense of shared experience.
Let me show you what I mean with a universal feeling that should come into play multiple times for your character throughout their story.
Insecurity: No One’s Favorite Feeling
Personally, I’m not a fan of this emotion. It’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and makes me feel weak. But I love it for my characters because it inherently builds empathy. Every reader on the planet has experienced insecurity—often at crucial moments—and they know how awful it is. Seeing someone they care about stumbling through it tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and makes them root for that character.
Insecurity is also important because it often plays into the character’s arc. Maybe they want to reach for a goal but don’t feel worthy of attaining it. Or they desperately want esteem and recognition from others but they’re too scared of failure to make the effort. Typically, it’s this very insecurity the character will have to overcome if they want to win in the story, so you definitely want to include it.
If your character is going to struggle with this emotion, it’s important to be able to show it clearly. And the best way to do this is for them to respond to it with one of the following tells.
Insecurity is never comfortable. Your character would much rather be seen as confident and capable, so when they’re feeling the opposite, they’re going to try and hide it. One way they might do this is through overcompensating.
We often see this with characters who fit the macho stereotype: bullies, jocks, divas, CEOs, world leaders, etc. For popular examples, look at many of Stephen King’s minor villains, who tend to throw their weight around to hide their weaknesses. Harold Lauder (The Stand) is condescending and off-putting, leaning on his intelligence to overcome his physical shortcomings. Percy Wetmore (The Green Mile) disguises his cowardice and inadequacy by becoming a corrections officer, where he can bully the death-row inmates, who are at his mercy.
- Risk-Aversion and Avoidance
Other characters will head the opposite direction, going out of their way to avoid the situations that make them feel unsure of themselves. A good example of this is A Few Good Men’s Daniel Kaffee. He’s grown up in the shadow of his successful father and is convinced he could never compare as a trial lawyer, so he plea-bargains all his cases. This allows him to remain a lawyer without ever stepping foot in a courtroom.
Another avoidance response you might see in an insecure character is the decision not to act. A character with this MO will take a backseat in their own life, letting other people make the important decisions. This way, they don’t have to take responsibility or ownership in the situations that make them feel uncomfortable. Underachievers very often respond this way.
The third installment of the Rocky franchise opens with the hero getting completely destroyed by a nobody. This demoralizing defeat, combined with the death of his manager, throws Rocky into a tailspin. When a rematch is declared, he accepts the offer but doesn’t fully commit, allowing himself to be distracted and only go so far in his training. Why? Because he’s convinced he can’t win.
Characters who are afraid of their own insecurities but don’t want to surrender outright may choose to go this route. They might only half-try, or they’ll adopt dysfunctional behaviors that will take them out of the running before they have a chance to fail.
Keeping it Real
It’s important to note that most people aren’t insecure in a general sense; this feeling typically crops up in specific situations. Going back to Daniel Kaffee: you wouldn’t define him as insecure. He’s actually quite confident—personable and charming, lots of friends, an athlete, with a respectable job as a lawyer. It’s only in certain scenarios that his self-doubt comes through.
This is a much more realistic picture of insecurity; it’s situational. Make sure your characters are well-rounded by giving them skills and strengths, areas in which they excel. Then, when they’re facing a challenge that makes them feel small and incapable, the contrast in their response will show readers what’s up.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze?
One last thing to note about this emotion: how your character responds to insecurity will depend on their fight, flight, or freeze response. If they tend toward fighting, they’ll likely become more aggressive, overcompensating for whatever failing (perceived or real) they’re trying to hide. A character who is more likely to flee or freeze will have an avoidance or self-sabotage response as they try to escape the threatening situation. So definitely do your homework in this area, because knowing your character’s natural tendency will give you a good idea of how they’ll respond when insecurity crops up.
How do you use insecurity to help shape, motivate, or create tension for your character?
Did you know Becca and Angela are releasing a new book next month? The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Adversaries, Obstacles, and Inner Struggles explores 100+ conflict scenarios that, when added to your story, can build tension and high stakes, challenge characters as they traverse their arcs, and most importantly, keep readers emotionally invested from beginning to end.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 700,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.
Very interesting! I have written about insecure characters before. As some of my readers (not all) seem to hate insecure characters, but I’m now very hesitant about writing insecure characters again. They want to read about strong females. Do you recognise this as well?
(I’m not English or American, so sorry if my spelling is not good!)
Lisa Hall-Wilson says
I’m not sure being a strong woman means you’re immune to insecurity. I love Becca’s tip about insecurity being situational. A woman very confident and strong in her work place might be completely insecure about dating or going home to visit family for instance. No one is confident and strong all of the time.
One of the things I love most about writing is building complex characters. The only people in real life who are always self-assured are egoists and sociopaths, two character types I’m loathe to create (even for villains). Even the worst of villains must have some tiny bit of good in them, some reflection of inner turmoil, no matter how tiny. For example, of the various villains in the Star Wars universe, the most impactful and interesting villain – Darth Vadar – doubts himself and in the end, drops the shield of hatred to show a tiny glimpse of humanity.
When I write a scene, I immerse myself in the main character(s) feelings and emotions. Joyous scenes are easy to do when I’m able to put myself in a joyous mood. But how, when writing of grief, loss, insecurity, fear, or other painful emotions, do you “pull out of it” when done? It’s not as though when I close my laptop, those emotions just dissipate. I have some very deep scenes I need to write but I find I am afraid to let myself go there. Any advice? I’m reluctant to write more objectively, since exploring emotional states and character responses is something I value in the works I read, and write.
hi! thanku so much for this article. So i have a bit of a dilemma- my protagonist is pretty well developed I think, very insecure, false guilt for something that happened long ago (he later finds out he really wasn’t to blame and his confidence begins to grow a little), very analytical and just wants everything to be right and everyone he loves to be safe- im thinking he’s an enneagram 6w5.
The only problem is, I need my protagonist to be the driver of the story- or else he’ll just be a little bug in the flow of the Plot River, toodling along for the ride. He needs to make decisions which will drive the plot in different directions, but Im struggling because his indecisive personality is keeping him from making decisions. How can I write an indecisive protagonsit who also paves the story through his decisions?
thankuu SO much
Lisa Hall-Wilson says
Your character has to want something and then put him in a position where he can’t turn back (moment of no return). Give the something he wants very significant stakes (doesn’t have to literal life or death, but something that feels like life or death). Sounds, only based on what you’ve written, that your character is passive. Are you sure they’re the best one to tell this story?