Writing Insecure Characters

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From Writers Helping Writers:

Angela Ackerman and I got our start telling anyone who was interested (and some who weren’t) what we’d learned about the importance of showing a character’s feelings. So I’ll start with a quote from The Emotion Thesaurus about why it’s so important for every author to get this right:

All successful novels, no matter what genre, have one thing in common: emotion. It lies at the core of every character’s decision, action, and word, all of which drive the story. Without emotion, a character’s personal journey is pointless. Stakes cease to exist. The plot line becomes a dry riverbed of meaningless events that no reader will take time to read. Why? Because above all else, readers pick up a book to have an emotional experience.

But they don’t want to be told how a character feels; they want to experience the emotion for themselves. To make this happen, we must ensure that our characters express their feelings in ways that are both recognizable and compelling to read.

. . . .

How we convey a character’s emotional state is vital to the reader’s experience. They don’t want to be bashed over the head with this information, nor do they appreciate clunky methods that jerk them out of the story. This is where show-don’t-tell comes into play. Show the character’s emotion through their natural responses to it, and readers will figure it out on their own. Use universal responses, and you’ll have the added benefit of readers connecting to the character through a sense of shared experience.

Insecurity: No One’s Favorite Feeling

Personally, I’m not a fan of this emotion. It’s uncomfortable, embarrassing, and makes me feel weak. But I love it for my characters because it inherently builds empathy. Every reader on the planet has experienced insecurity—often at crucial moments—and they know how awful it is. Seeing someone they care about stumbling through it tugs at the reader’s heartstrings and makes them root for that character. 

Insecurity is also important because it often plays into the character’s arc. Maybe they want to reach for a goal but don’t feel worthy of attaining it. Or they desperately want esteem and recognition from others but they’re too scared of failure to make the effort. Typically, it’s this very insecurity the character will have to overcome if they want to win in the story, so you definitely want to include it.

If your character is going to struggle with this emotion, it’s important to be able to show it clearly. And the best way to do this is for them to respond to it with one of the following tells.


Insecurity is never comfortable. Your character would much rather be seen as confident and capable, so when they’re feeling the opposite, they’re going to try and hide it. One way they might do this is through overcompensating. 

We often see this with characters who fit the macho stereotype: bullies, jocks, divas, CEOs, world leaders, etc. For popular examples, look at many of Stephen King’s minor villains, who tend to throw their weight around to hide their weaknesses. Harold Lauder (The Stand) is condescending and off-putting, leaning on his intelligence to overcome his physical shortcomings. Percy Wetmore (The Green Mile) disguises his cowardice and inadequacy by becoming a corrections officer, where he can bully the death-row inmates, who are at his mercy.

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers