If the protag feels sorry for himself, the readers don't have to.
Readers should care about the protag and be unhappy about what the world is doing to him/her, but they shouldn't pity him. The protag needs to have admirable qualities that the readers will want to identify with. Pity is not a good substitute for admiration.
Grief is an emotion that should be used in small, subtle portions. The POV sees something that reminds him of her, he goes by a place they used to meet, he finds a note hidden in a favorite book, one that she left him just a few days before her death. The reason grief is so tricky is because the action on which it is based has already happened. The character is reacting to something which is not present. In order to root it in the present it has to be in response to something currently happening.
Don't expect readers to empathize with strong emotions which the POV is feeling in response to an event which happened off-stage. If your POV is experiencing strong emotion you should have events happen in the story which at least contribute to or strengthen those feelings. Ideally, if you want to start out your story with strong emotions the POV should start out in the middle of the situation which is causing the emotions.
Here's an example: The POV starts out strongly grieving for a mother who has just died. Given my earlier advice, you might think I would suggest with the discovery of the body. The problem with this is that the POV is not reacting to what is happening. Nothing is happening. The body isn't doing anything.
Instead, start with, say, the police investigation, where an insensitive inspector is asking all sorts of personal questions. This gives the character the chance to react to *what is happening*, namely the officer's questions. Interaction is always better than simple reaction.
Getting your readers to feel emotion is an art form. Trying to do it by having the POV just feel emotion is a shortcut that doesn't work. All that does is shut readers out of the POV's head.
> The unicorn, with her dazzling white coat and liquid brown eyes, stepped into the clearing.
> Looking at the unicorn, Daniel felt a feeling of peace and contentment come over him
> that he hadn't felt since Alicia's death.
Why? Feelings that come out of nowhere aren't too good for story continuity. Why should he feel like this? Does the arrival of the unicorn mean something to him? Or does everybody who looks at a unicorn feel good? Is the unicorn projecting a "feel-good" field? If it is, he needs to sense that that connection in some way. If he's just feeling at peace you should explain what thought processes he goes through in order for the sight of the unicorn to produce this feeling.
You also need to be careful not to let your POV overreact to situations. This happens sometimes when a *writer* feels very strongly about an issue which the POV has just come into contact with. If the POV reacts as the writer would have, his actions may seem incomprehensible to the readers. Always, always beware of this if you are writing on a subject about which you feel strongly.
> He stared at the poster on the wall, a picture of a young girl with blue eyes and curly brown hair.
> The word "Missing" hung just above the girl's name. Huge tears welled up from his eyes and rolled down his face.
> He touched the surface of her photocopied face. Sobs convulsed in his throat until he thought they would tear him apart.
Did you think that the protag was looking at a picture of his own missing child? In the actual story this was taken from, the man was just a sympathetic postal worker looking at the poster of some girl who he had never met. This is an inappropriately strong emotion, caused by the fact that the *author* felt very strongly on the subject of missing children. He felt his protag ought to cry over all missing children. I didn't find the character very believable.
If the character was looking at a picture of his own child he wouldn't be overreacting. One would expect him to get this emotional over his own child.
> She was gone forever. Tears welled up in his eyes and he collapsed onto the floor
> shaking with sobs. A great blackness welled up in him at the loss of his beloved wife.
> The whole house seemed filled with memories, reminding him of what he had lost.
Do you feel the protagonist's pain welling up inside you? Do you feel like crying yourself? If so, you may have recently lost a loved one. For the rest of us it takes a little more than a blatant description of his grief to engage true feelings. *Intellectually* we can understand that he is grieving, but it takes more than that to actually make us *feel*.
Instead, consider this:
> The house was quiet and dark. He flipped on the light. A blue jacket hung forlornly over the back of a chair,
> abandoned after a giggling romp in front of the fireplace. It was the last living memory he had of her,
> with the color flushing her cheeks and hair spilling down over her face. He reached down and lifted the jacket to
> his face, losing himself in the smell of her.
The emotions here are much more understated here but, IMO, more powerful. We aren't on the outside watching him sob and blubber, we're inside his head, remembering the love, trying to hold onto the memories with our grieving protag. There is nothing to tell us what he is feeling but we know from his actions and perceptions.
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