Selflessness is what most people think of when they imagine a likable character. After all, a character doesn’t feel like a classic hero unless they help others. But selflessness isn’t a match for every character we want audiences to love, and it’s trickier to pull off than it sounds. Let’s cover what it takes to make a character lovable with selflessness.
What Selflessness Requires
To make a real impression, you’re not looking for everyday, run-of-the-mill kindness. When a character helps someone but it’s no skin off their back, that’s not bad, but it may not increase their likability that much. This is why a superhero that rescues hapless civilians is admirable but not particularly special. After all, they’re often resistant to harm, which lowers their risk, and they’re probably getting lots of social admiration as a reward for their work.
Instead, you need to show how your character is exceptionally giving. You can do that in several ways.
- The character invests an impressive amount of time, energy, or scarce resources in helping others when they wouldn’t be expected to. While a character caring for their children will earn some attachment, especially from parents, a child caring for a parent will make a bigger impression precisely because children are not expected to do that.
- The character shows kindness and generosity when most people would only show hatred or resentment. Commonly, a selfless character will help people who have been mean to them.
- The character’s selfless choice comes at a significant personal cost. For an even larger likability bonus, the personal cost can also be used to create sympathy. A hero that gives themself to a villain in exchange for someone else’s freedom is a classic example, but it means less if the audience believes the supposedly selfless hero will use their impressive skills to get free.
For a character to feel selfless, the audience needs to understand how their actions reduce the harm to or hardship of another person or creature. If a character goes out of their way to help people who don’t need it, they may just come off as a pushover.
This also means that a character who adheres to moral principles is not the same as a selfless character. We usually admire characters that stick to their guns, but principles and honor codes are too abstract to tug at the heart. In a worst-case scenario, a principled character might feel frustratingly stubborn and impractical instead of moral. However, if the audience understands why adhering to a principle is necessary to save others, preferably specific people who’ve appeared in a scene, then a principled character will be interpreted as selfless.
Selflessness has a great deal of synergy with sympathy. A character that doesn’t have much to give and yet gives anyway is making a much bigger statement. Plus, characters that are in lower positions in society are more naturally humble or modest, which is also interpreted as a form of selflessness.
Creating a Premise for Selflessness
If you’re still in the early phases of creating your story, you can use a big-picture premise to work in a lot of selflessness for your main character. Using the criteria in the section above, I’ve created three example premises.
- Perhaps the protagonist spends their days filtering demonic spawn out of the smelly sewer system. It used to be their low-paid job, but after the city cut the budget and laid them off, they kept doing it. They know if they don’t, people will get hurt.
- The young protagonist used to live on the streets, but they were lucky enough to get an apprenticeship. However, instead of sleeping in their new bunk, they sleep in a wrecked building alongside the people who are still homeless. Someone or something has been attacking their fellows late at night, and the protagonist is determined to discover what it is and protect everyone.
- After a sickness sweeps through the protagonist’s home village, the protagonist is blamed for it by the villagers and cast out. While the protagonist feels hurt by this, they also understand the villagers are just afraid. Worried about the people who might die from the sickness, they set out to find a cure, even though they don’t expect the villagers to trust them or welcome them back.
You might notice that none of these characters are living the high life. If a character has lots of power and luxury, it will be harder for them to make an impression. I have more on that below.
Shoring Up Selflessness Where You Can
If your story is already plotted out and you don’t have room for big changes, below are some ways you can increase a character’s selflessness.
- Give them a sweet and humble personality. Characters that act caring and lend others a kind ear, regardless of the circumstances, will be interpreted as more selfless and are often better liked as a result.
- Show them help someone who falls behind. Depict one or more scenes where your character stops and spends time and energy helping someone else who isn’t as lucky as them, even though it costs your character a small opportunity to get ahead.
- Have them turn down unethical rewards. An antagonist can offer your character something they could really use, but in return, the character might have to endorse the antagonist, ditch their fellows, or do something that’s not quite on the level. This gives your character the opportunity to show selflessness by turning the offer down.
- Depict them providing labor-intensive support for someone else. Maybe your character regularly goes grocery shopping on behalf of an elderly neighbor that has trouble leaving their apartment. Because of the time involved, it will make a bigger impression than buying a few extra items at the store and giving them away.
- Make them violate the rules to spare someone harm. If your character works under an intimidating boss or commander, make them choose between following the rules or helping someone in need. That way, when they break the rules to help someone, they’ve put themself at risk.
- Let them take on the tasks that others avoid. A character who volunteers to do work that is unpleasant, thankless, and necessary for everyone’s welfare will look selfless. The task can also be dangerous, but your character needs to be as afraid and vulnerable as everyone else, not a big tough hero.
Avoid throwing in a single selfless scene only to neglect selflessness thereafter. Selfless behavior needs to feel like it’s part of a character’s personality, not an anomaly. Look for ways selfless behaviors can be ongoing or become relevant to the plot later. If your character acts like an egotistical jerk sometimes, establish a pattern of behavior to show the audience when they act like a jerk and when they act selfless. That way it will look like different sides of their personality, rather than just inconsistency.
Making the Upper Classes Look Selfless
Making people with lots of wealth and power look selfless is a bit tricky, because hoarding wealth and power is not exactly selfless. However, whether you’re writing court intrigue or epic intergalactic battles, there are times when it’s simply easier to have a protagonist among the elite.
Even if your character is from a family that’s wealthy or powerful, you can still give them resource shortages. Lands, businesses, and other assets take lots of money to maintain, so if income falls, they could find themself on the verge of having to sell land and/or lay off workers. Once that happens, many people who depend on the elite family for their livelihood could end up working in dangerous conditions. This can give the protagonist more problems, make spending resources feel more costly, and provide a selfless reason for preserving their estate.
However, you’ll still need ways for the protagonist to make personal sacrifices. Even if resources are scarce, spending those resources may hurt the protagonist much less than it hurts all the people who work for the protagonist. For an act to be selfless, it has to primarily affect the protagonist themself.
Your protagonist might:
- Have to spend their time with detestable people. A noble protagonist might have to marry someone they dislike for the welfare of their people. However, make sure to establish exactly how this will help others. Maybe their people will face mass starvation unless they get a close alliance with someone whose lands produce extra food.
- Put their life at risk. Personal safety will still matter to someone powerful, but they need a reason to risk themself rather than hire more qualified mercenaries. Perhaps they take the blame for a crime instead of letting their younger sibling go to jail. Or perhaps an enemy will invade before they can bring in more forces, so they and their personal guard make a desperate defense while their workers evacuate.
- Give up personal dreams. Delegating responsibility can be a long and difficult process, so the heir to an estate might give up the life they want to toil long hours trying to keep their estate going. However, this will only feel selfless if the life they want is attractive, and the life they have is less than ideal. If they bemoan the loss of their rugged adventurous pursuits while eating caviar off of crystal, it will feel contrived. If they have to leave wizarding school to manage a dirt farm, you’ll have a better shot.
A selfless character with power over the lives of others should ultimately work toward giving more of that power to the people themselves. Most of us have had great fun reading or writing stories about long-lost heirs to the throne. However, in an era where democracy is threatened, a protagonist that simply accepts the power of a dictator doesn’t look so great anymore.
What to Avoid
In our effort to make characters selfless, we can unintentionally fall into bad habits. Here’s what to watch out for.
An engaged audience cares about protagonists and the problems they face. That means they’re going to be thinking about those problems themselves and imagining possible solutions. When a protagonist ignores obvious solutions or puts themself through more pain than necessary, audiences get really frustrated.
A character who makes a sacrifice is choosing a less-than-ideal solution, even if making the sacrifice will help someone else. If making the sacrifice doesn’t feel absolutely necessary, the character won’t feel selfless; they’ll feel like they have a martyr complex.
For instance, in The Hunger Games, Katniss’s choice to volunteer for the deadly games is absolutely necessary to save her younger sister, who is conscripted for the games via a random lottery. Katniss doesn’t have the means to fight the authorities and save her sister another way.
In contrast, Bella from Twilight decides to give herself to a villainous vampire that Team Good is actually capable of defeating. The villain claims to have her mother, but Bella doesn’t even talk to anyone about rescuing her mother before making her choice. What’s more, she has no way of keeping the villain from killing her mother even if she gives herself up. And naturally, the villain doesn’t actually have her mother; it was a trick. While Bella’s actions might have endeared her to some readers, they only alienated others.
Part of being selfless is helping others who are in need. That does mean that privileged people are expected to show selflessness by helping those who are more marginalized. However, when we depict this in a story, we can twist it into doing the opposite: exploiting the experiences of marginalized people to embellish the fantasies of privileged people. The privileged heroes of these stories are often referred to as white saviors.
A privileged person helping a marginalized person becomes white saviorism when:
- The oppression the marginalized person faces is depicted in horrific detail, exaggerated, or sensationalized to maximize tension and drama. This is usually exploitative, because marginalized people may not want traumatic reminders of their real-life hardships.
- The privileged hero performs a glorified role in fighting off oppression or saving the day in place of the marginalized character who is actually facing these problems. Often, the privileged hero will even co-opt the cultural practices or skills of the marginalized group in doing so. The marginalized character acts like an object or follower when they should be leading the fight.
James Cameron’s Avatar and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are both examples of white saviorism. In Avatar, Jake Sully joins a group of nature-loving aliens that are clearly stand-ins for Native Americans. He becomes their leader by mastering their practice of dragon taming beyond what any of them have done in generations, and then he leads a battle against their human invaders. In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sabrina has a queer friend who is facing severe bullying. Sabrina uses her powers to protect her friend while her friend acts helpless.
However, if you avoid exploiting marginalized people or taking agency away from them, you can still show a privileged person assisting people who are in a more vulnerable position. In Kaiju Preservation Society, Jamie gets laid off and ends up delivering food during the pandemic, but they’re* still better off than their roommates. Jamie’s roommates have no income and are faced with the prospect of moving in with anti-queer parents who will misgender them. So Jamie tells them to stay, rent-free. The oppression the roommates face is only briefly alluded to, and Jamie doesn’t act out a glorified savior role in defeating that oppression. Since Jamie is down on their luck and wouldn’t be expected to support their roommates, doing so makes Jamie look quite selfless.
Selfless characters typically forgive villains who’ve done some pretty bad things. For the selfless character, that’s fine. It’s their choice to forgive and give the villain a second chance. However, storytellers who use this trope can sometimes forget that the villain still did terrible harm, and a protagonist’s choice to forgive them doesn’t make their misdeeds go away.
- Remember that to redeem a villain, they need to do more than say sorry and stop doing harm. Whether they’re forgiven or not, they should do something to actually make up for the harm they caused. The audience won’t be satisfied otherwise.
- Then, even if the villain does that, the people the villain harmed may not forgive them, nor should those people be pressured to. A supposedly selfless hero who tries to cajole another person into forgiving someone will look self-centered and insensitive.
- Finally, if the villain harmed a selfless hero’s loved ones, the hero’s choice to befriend the villain will look questionable. People need space from those who have harmed them. That can be difficult when your best friend or significant other is cozying up to your abuser.
Despite what some people would have you believe, a selfless character doesn’t have to be stiff or boring. People of all stripes are capable of helping each other out, including people who are greatly flawed.
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