exactly is a cynic?
Main Entry: cyn•ic
1 : a faultfinding
captious critic; especially: one who believes that
human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest
I hate it when Webster’s
definition has me looking up another word to get the full meaning, but captious
means “marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and
raise objections.” Basically, a cynic is an unpleasant person to be
People do not consider cynicism
a good trait. These are not the
people we seek out to eat lunch with or to babysit our children. They
don’t inspire us to scale mountains or overcome obstacles. They are
Authors have, by and large,
given cynicism to a character more as a
vice, a personal thing for him or her to work through on an inward
journey. I’m hoping to give some insight into how cynics get that way.
Most people are not born with
this disposition, they become this way
due to life circumstances. For this exposé on cynics, I want to examine
a few key characteristics of cynics that need to be present in your
manuscript to make their cynicism ring true.
What you’re about to read might
be hard to believe, but if you think
about it, it’ll make sense. Most cynics start out optimistic and full
of hope. They probably put a lot of effort into something at some
point, expecting great results, only to get very little or nothing in
return. Their hopes are dashed, along with their faith in others. It
is critical to have something like this in your character’s backstory.
Writers tend to gravitate toward
a cliché of a male cynic hero who
tries hard to get a job promotion, but some young upstart, relative of
the boss or other not-as-deserving person gets the job instead,
foiling his efforts. This outcome turns the hero against others.
The female cliché is one we’ve
all read before, as well. The heroine
puts all her eggs into one romantic basket only to have them returned
to her broken and unrecognizable. This heart-wrenching event, no matter
how far back in her past, turns her off love for good (until she meets
the hero, etc.).
If this type of disillusionment
goes on long enough, these people
will become depressed at their life situation. They begin to think that
nothing they do in life really makes a difference, and this is the
definition of helplessness.
The one psychological disorder
most marked by a sense of
helplessness is depression. That’s not to say all cynics have to have
depression. The more areas of life that their cynicism touches, the
more likely they might be clinically depressed. For example, a person
can be pessimistic just about his work (environment, boss, coworkers),
or she can be negative about her work, church, family, government, and
A good rule of thumb is not to
have your character cynical about everything,
doubting everyone’s motivations, suspicious of every
facet of his or her life. Why? You’ll have a harder book to write with
more ground for the character to cover in order to reach some point of
Cynics deal in the currency of
sarcasm and biting, scathing
comments. In doing this, they display hostility toward others. But
don’t make the mistake of thinking this is who they truly are, because
it’s actually a front.
What do we know about hostility,
then? Hostility is outwardly turned
anger. You might have heard it said that anger is a secondary emotion,
and this is true. Anger can cover a multitude of emotions people don’t
want to feel, like fear, anxiety, disappointment, guilt, worry, hurt,
frustration, jealousy, or shame.
Cynics’ main emotion for their
hostility is fear of being hurt. They
project this tough, rough, you-can’t-hurt-me attitude because their
biggest fear is that some dart will hurt them and
their façade. The idea behind this is that if they assume the worst,
then reality won’t be such a big disappointment and, therefore, they
are better prepared when the worst happens. Thinking positively got
them nowhere before (see Disillusionment), and they globalize that
3 Steps to Breaking
Away from the Cliché
1) Make the cynic care about something.
Emotional detachment is safer
than emotional investment. Cynics
using sarcasm and rudeness try to distance themselves from any
particular outcome. But give them a reason early in the book to have a
vested emotional interest in a specific outcome, which goes against the
very grain of a cynic, and you have immediate inward tension.
2) Make the cynic face his fear.
Once cynics care about
something, they ultimately will come to a
crossroad where they have to face the fear of whether they admit they
care, or walk away (or be rude, biting, etc., to mask their feelings).
This will be the outward tension.
3) Give the cynic one situation in which cynicism works in her favor.
There is some value to being a
little cynical. It’s not all bad.
Cynics are generally interesting people, and many can be knee-slapping
hilarious. Let your cynic showcase his or her “talent” by being right
about a con artist, hoax, or get-rich-quick scheme.
However you portray your cynic,
the reader will want to see him or
her change by the end of the book. If by the end of the book the cynic
comes to a place of balancing negativism with a healthy dose of
realism, you’ll have done your job well.