Writing Humility Into Your Characters
As writers, we all must come to grips with the ongoing dilemma of humility versus self-promotion; it is far less complicated to look at the role of humility in our characters than in ourselves.
As in life, humble people often possess a quiet, inner strength that plays well against an obnoxious main character. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. Definitely not humble. Yet, his dependence on the humility of Dr.Watson is subtle, yet powerful. Watson not only admires and supports Holmes, it is the doctor’s steadfast loyalty which makes Holmes a household name. And while Watson highly disapproves of Holmes’ use of mind-enhancing drugs, he will still go out of his way to save the life of the indisputable genius.
In the same way, in Gone With the Wind, Melanie’s quiet, unassuming character serves to highlight and heighten Scarlet O’Hara’s self-centeredness. Is Melanie remembered? Of course she is, for her humble spirit and shy nature. After Scarlet has been caught being “comforted” by Ashley Wilkes, it is sweet, unassuming Melanie who offers friendship and forgiveness, heaping “coals of kindness” on her cousin’s head. It is interesting how this seems to confuse the enemy, yet it is stated in many articles that a spirit of humility is the best deterrence when confronted with anger, resentment, or jealousy.
In the Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd, Rutledge is a main character whose energies are spent solving intricate murders. The stories take place shortly after World War I. Using a brilliant character flaw, Todd gives Rutledge PTSD at a time when it was unknown and/or condemned as an indication of cowardness. Detective Ian Rutledge must contend 24/7 with the voice of a soldier he was forced to shoot for refusing to take his men over dead man’s land one last time. Throughout the book, the ghostly “Hamish” makes his presence known in critical observations and angry remarks. This strange use of PTSD adds an extra layer of suspense to the book as a whole, yet holds Detective Rutledge in a complex grip. The condition not only denies him the opportunity of either promotion or marriage, it allows a deep insight into the pain of others, while contrasting Rutledge’s inner strength, which he must always hold in check, against the obnoxious resentment of his immediate supervisor, who is both arrogant and demeaning.
The world-famous mystery writer, Agatha Christie, created a boastful, arrogant, and far from humble Belgian, with a love of chocolates — definitely not a liability, right? Hercule Poirot’s true weakness is his strength. Come again? Poirot knows himself to be a brilliant detective and, much like Sherlock Holmes, only appears humble when the occasion demands it or when doing so will ingratiate himself to others. Indeed, he is totally convinced of his own intellectual superiority, and Christie uses this very attribute, not only as quasi comic relief, but to bring the short Belgian down another notch. Upon missing a vital clue, Poirot curses his own stupidity, something that would never be tolerated coming from others! While Poirot is truly “an unforgettable character,” I often catch myself thinking that one more reference to “those little gray cells” will surely cause me to scream and run amok. Maybe he’s just not my cup of tisane.
In contrast, Christie’s other brilliant detective is Miss Marple, who is so unassuming, many forget she’s even there, including the killer. Marple is given a peace, an inner strength that others sense; they migrate towards what they perceive as a naïve kind of dignity, confessing their darkest secrets to someone who listens to their every word while instilling an unspoken sense of confidentiality and caring. In true humility, she sorts through the facts and zeroes in on the perpetrator, who never suspects the little old lady of anything other than dementia and an obsession with knit one, pearl two.
Finally, Harry Potter. In tor.com, Emily Asher-Perrin calls Neville Longbottom “the most important person in Harry Potter.” Why? Because it is this unassuming, humble, kind minor character who “determines the course” of the entire series. Wow. “Neville understands that it’s not about being loud and brash every day, it’s about picking your battles and knowing what’s dear and worth fighting for.” In other words, he makes Harry Potter look really good. Need I admonish you to place close attention to your minor characters? While not “remarkably talented or suave,” Neville is trusted. He “makes all the hard choices that Pettigrew refused the first time around.” Pettigrew allowed the weakness of hero worship to affect his decisions while Neville, knowing he could have been where Harry Potter is now, bears no grudge. Instead, he develops a fierce determination to do what he can to help the group as a whole. Asher-Perrin calls it “a lesson in self-worth under stronger personalities that most human beings could do with at some point or another.” Neville Longbottom, in effect, makes Harry Potter possible.
In the workplace, a spirit of humility can encourage others to shine. In relationships, humility can bring a deep calm to troubled waters. In fiction, a character with quiet, inner strength can add depth and contrast to your writing, and take it to the next level.
Thanks for walking through the corridor with me.