Background Info: My main character starts out the story with kind of a sad back story, it's not in a tragic way, just the normal kind of misfortune; losing family members, having to drop out of college (with a lot of debt) to take responsibility for her family's small business, and also losing all of her friends after she naturally breaks down from the stress and goes on a drug bender, they also felt uncomfortable that she wasn't in school anymore and stopped supporting her. I'd like to think that this is a common thing to have happen to someone, the story takes place several years later. She's fine, mostly happy, and engaged but still has a lot of anger and regret about how she handled things in the past.

My problem: I'm not really sure how to express that without having her have some kind of an annoying internal monologue or just seem pathetic. Her circumstances change a lot in the story and she has to come to grips with and let go of all of that negativity in the end.

Question: What is a good approach (or approaches) to depict her underlying anger enough to show that it's a problem, but also have her still be likable?

Hopefully I made this clear enough, let me know if you need more info!

5 Answers 5


Being filled with regret does not necessarilly make your character pathetic. If what she is regretful about is truly horrible and self-damning, then that regret may be an appropriate response to the loss. It only becomes pathetic in the eyes of your readers, when what has been lost and is now sorrowfully missed, was never real or really valuable in the first place. If you want your reader to empathize with your character, invest in making what she lost real and tangible to them.

Beyond building empathy, you can postpone most readers' judgement of your character by making her aware that this anger and regret are personal faults which need to be healed. Have her struggle to overcome them and to consciously change the way that she sees the world. Most readers will tolerate a little pathetic in their heroes, as long as there is some foreshadowing of the growth which is soon to come.

Finally, consider that anger and regret are not the only way that an unfortunate history can express itself within your character. It can also come out as wisdom and compassion. As she is sitting in a bar, have the bartender offer her another round and with a sad smile, have her pass on the opportunity, reviewing in her mind how she has already paid those dues and therefore doesn't need a repeat. Have her view the bar's other patrons with pity instead of disgust. If you don't want her to seem pathetic, don't paint her that way.

  • @ChrisSunami, I felt the same way as I was writing the answer which is why each paragraph is better than its predecessor at actually answering the OP's question. Strictly in terms of answering the question, the first paragraph is worthless. The second paragraph is a little better but it is the third paragraph which actually address the question. My only problem was that I liked the first two paragraphs too much to delete them. Any suggestions on how to handle this kind of thing differently? Jun 28, 2016 at 23:31
  • I would lead with the direct answer, and move the tangent to later. I almost downvoted you because your lead paragraph contradicted the premises, but when I read more deeply I realized the bulk of your advice was very similar to what I would recommend. I think your answer would read much better in reverse order, and it would only take a few small changes to make it flow that way. Jun 29, 2016 at 5:00
  • Thanks for the advice. I have edited my answer to stress its stronger points first. Jun 29, 2016 at 5:18
  • I think this is much stronger. Upvoted. Jun 29, 2016 at 16:12

I suggest a popular literary technique called 'indirect characterisation'

If your writing in first person; write about her thoughts and reasons and actions. If she is approached by someone who speaks and she reveals how that person has affected her ,good or bad.

If in second person you may start a chapter revealing that she had suffered a breakdown and is recovering in a bar, then you hint what's going on in the bar and what affect this has on her senses. Smell of beer, taste of free water, feeling of splinters under the bar table...and so on

  • Hello, thanks for chipping in on this question! I'm wondering — did you perhaps mean third person, rather than second? The perspective which uses 'he/she' is third-person perspective. Successful stories told from the second-person perspective ('you') are rare, hence why I'm wondering if this was a typo!
    – Cakebox
    Jun 28, 2016 at 16:23
  • Yes, sorry I meant third person Jun 28, 2016 at 17:08
  • No worries, of course! If you'd like you can edit your post using the 'edit' button underneath it :)
    – Cakebox
    Jun 28, 2016 at 18:52

One key thing you can do is to have your character fight against their own anger, instead of luxuriating in it. If she's really doing her best to move on, but having trouble --well, most of us can identify with that.

You also don't have to have all the back story come out at once, and you might want to simplify it. If one detail or another has a real and living impact on where the character is now, that gives you an organic approach to it. If it doesn't, do you actually need it?


Dialogue and monologue.

Dialogue with her friends, one by one, until they leave. With a bartender or barista. On a chat room or a BBS.

Monologue could be writing in a diary or a blog. Or potentially she monologues at her cat, who will look interested only until she's fed.

Whoever the audience is, have the character say out loud the things she's thinking and feeling, with occasional asides of things she's thinking and feeling that she doesn't want to admit out loud.


You could put her in a situation that forces her to relive her past. That definitely would make her your main character as not only is she confronted with her past but she must do so with something she must deal with in the present.

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