How to Write Cynicism
- Give your character a painful backstory. Even if you never discuss it in detail, your cynic should have some pain in their background. Pain is often the cause of cynicism. Before your character experienced so much physical or emotional distress, they might have been happy and caring, but those qualities were beaten down by their negative experiences and the character became cynical. In fact, the more open-hearted a person was in the beginning, the more cynical they may become when they undergo a tragedy or hardship.
- Come up with a few good one-liners. Cynics are fairly dismissive of everything and everyone. They don’t waste words or bother trying to explain themselves – instead, they deal with everything in an offhand, devil-may-care sort of way. See sections 7 and 8 for examples of one-liners.
- Don’t confuse cynicism with simple meanness. Cynical characters are not always mean. In fact, they’re often very kindhearted, empathetic individuals who have been defeated by the grim and tragic events of the world. Their cynicism is an armor that protects their inner tenderness. Cynics are often very kind even if they aren’t very nice. This is true of both literary characters and real people, so a kind-but-cynical character can come across as very realistic.
- Include moments of genuine emotion. When a cynical character shows emotions and exposes a little vulnerability, it can be very powerful. Think of Tyrion Lannister’s “I’m Guilty of Being a Dwarf” speech. In that speech, the extremely cynical and thick-skinned Tyrion publicly reveals a source of deep pain in his life. One way to accomplish this is to give the hero a close friend or companion – the only person in the world they really trust.
When to Use Cynicism
Cynicism is great for creative writing. Cynical characters can be really fun to write for the same reason they’re fun to read and watch – they give voice to the negative attitudes and emotions that we ordinarily try to keep in check. Cynicism works equally well in comedy, drama, tragedy, and all other genres, but it’s best suited to dark comedies.
In formal writing, you have to be careful about cynicism. Academic and professional writing needs to have a neutral tone, and that can be hard to create if you’re feeling cynical about the topic. However, it is possible to make a cynical argument in a neutral tone – for example, you could make a rational, thoughtful argument in which the final conclusion was that people are generally motivated by greed more than generosity. However, the tone of such a paper would still have to be balanced and fact-focused – you wouldn’t want to get caught up in complaining or ridiculing this aspect of human nature.
Another way to put it is this: in some circumstances, the evidence might cause you to write a cynical argument; but you should never write a sardonic one (see next section).