Half Empty or Half Full: Writing About Optimistic and Pessimistic Characters

Hey, question for you. Do your characters view the world through an optimistic or pessimistic tint?

At first glance, the answer might seem like fairly insignificant, especially when compared to other factors about your character’s mental state, like unreliable memories or personality disorders. Well... if you feel that way, take another glance.

Optimistic and pessimistic outlooks are a fundamental part of your character. Along with personality traits, they form the bedrock of their psyche and change the whole tone of their interactions. They can also create dire obstacles for your character to overcome and stimulate growth throughout their story.

Are optimism and pessimism starting to look more important yet? I hope so. Then let’s dig into the nitty-gritty of how that can be used to maximum effect in your writing.

If you haven’t already, make sure you read the previous post, which explains the psychology behind optimism, pessimism and explanatory styles: Design a Personality: Is Your Character Optimistic or Pessimistic? This won’t make a lot of sense otherwise.

Done that? Okay, then let’s get storycrafting.

Character Building

There’s no simple divide between ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’ so avoid labelling your characters as one or the other. When designing your cast, think instead of where they fall on the continuum. Some characters will be more optimistic or pessimistic than others, some only slightly so, with a minimal effect on their lives, and some will have a streak of optimism or pessimism that pervades everything they do.

Once you’ve settled on where your characters fall on the spectrum, consider the far reaching effects this will have on their thoughts and behaviour. This is particularly relevant for point-of-view characters, as the reader will see their thoughts for themselves, but also applies to non-POV characters, as their mindsets can be inferred from the way they act.

When writing from a character’s perspective, keep their natural tendency to be more optimistic or pessimistic in the back of your mind. Their explanatory style—how they explain their problems and pick a solution—will be shown through their thoughts and the way they interpret events. If they’re more pessimistic, they’ll have a tendency to attribute their problems to themselves (personal), see them as unchangeable situations (permanent), and think that their whole lives will be affected by the problem (pervasive). Because of this, they tend to become more passive and helpless.

Want to have a peek at the characters in my work-in-progress, Her Clockwork Heart? Allow me to introduce Lucian Blake.

Example 1
Lucian has a fairly pessimistic outlook on life. When his wife tells him something that makes him doubt her sanity, he blames himself for what’s happened to her, doesn’t think he can fix it and believes that every aspect of their lives together is now tainted by this problem. A feeling of helplessness—of the inability to do anything to make things better—overcomes him and, unable to deal with this, he abandons his wife.

On the other side of the coin, optimistic characters’ explanatory style means that they interpret negative events as circumstantial and therefore not their fault, with situations being temporary, changeable and specific to this one event, not their entire lives. Because of this, they’re more active in their response to the situation.

Example 2
If Lucian had been closer to the optimism end of the continuum, he might have seen the situation very differently: instead of attributing his wife’s mental health problem to himself, he could have seen it as an unfortunate twist of fate, one that could be changed, by time or intervention, and something that only affected a small part of their lives. Rather than allow the negativity of the situation to affect every aspect of his life with her, he might have recognised that she was still the same person, the woman he loved, and taken an active role in helping her however he could.

When narrating from a character’s perspective, allow the influence of their explanatory style to show through. How they interpret an event is very telling of how optimistic or pessimistic they are, as shown in the examples above. Take care when writing pessimistic POVs, though—making your character very negative in their outlook can be frustrating for a reader, which makes your job as a writer a little bit harder.

Plot Twists and Turns

Learning optimism or pessimism can feature as a central part of a story’s plot. Put your characters in a situation that highlights and reinforces their natural tendency to be optimistic or pessimistic and have them learn to be helpless or active. This could be part of the main storyline or have happened during their lives before the story begins—either way, it will have a substantial impact on their outlook on life if it was a well-taught lesson.

Plot Prompts
  • Write about a character who is taken prisoner and subjected to terrifying situations that she can’t escape from. Only her natural tendency to be optimistic allows her to continue looking for a way to escape—which eventually pays off when an opportunity arises.
  • Incorporate a character who has a pessimistic inclination—how does he challenge or bolster the main character’s outlook?
  • Include an overly optimistic character in your story. She sees everything in a positive light and believes that she has the power to change her pessimistic friend’s circumstances—but what happens if she’s mistaken in that belief and her friend doesn’t want her help?

Developing Character Arcs

Pitting your characters against external events that force them to learn optimism or helplessness creates conflict, but it doesn’t have to end there. The characters’ internal journeys can be founts of conflict too. If your protagonist begins the story feeling helpless and ineffective, part of her journey may be to become active in solving her problems and less pessimistic in outlook. For this to happen, her very beliefs about negative events must change and this isn’t an easy thing to do, not least because she’s probably unaware of her natural tendency to be pessimistic.

Consider as well whether your character will take a conscious route to learning optimism or pessimism or an unconscious one. In the case of the former, something might happen to give her a moment of clarity, in which she realises that her pessimistic beliefs are not shared by others and that they may be doing her harm—for example, another character may point this out to her directly or she might realise it through observing others and comparing herself to them.

In the case of the latter, the events of the plot and her interactions with other characters might allow her to unconsciously change her explanatory style—for example, her pessimistic nature may keep her from advancing, but a more optimistic character intervenes and helps her to overcome a situation that she believed inescapable.