Character Trait Entry: Modest

Definitionneither bold or self-assertive; a tendency toward diffidence

Causes: An introverted nature; low self-esteem or confidence; feeling discomfort at being thrust into the spotlight; preferring a background role or supporting position; growing up with talented parents or siblings and standing on the sidelines of their acclaim; shyness; a sense of self-preservation

Characters in Literature: Aibileen (The Help); Nevile Longbottom (Harry Potter, especially the early books)

Positives:

Modest characters defer to others, allowing them to take the limelight. The knowledge of being involved in the process and events that led to something better is satisfying on its own without the need to also share the same level of acclaim. Those with the modest trait often prefer supportive roles, seeing themselves as a cog in the machine, and do no seek out to place themselves above others. Generosity naturally goes hand in hand with modesty, and so these characters are usually highly thought of by peers. Modest characters usually deflect when addressed directly, singing the praises of those around them as 'the real heroes' rather than take credit for the accomplishment. This kindness is appreciated by others and creates a strong reciprocal feeling of loyalty and friendship.

Negatives:  

Modest characters can cause discomfort in others if they refuse to take less credit than is due. If another is well aware of their huge contribution yet is forced to be the 'face' of success alone because of modesty, it can lead to a feeling of unworthiness.  It can also be very difficult to thank or give a boon of appreciation to someone who is overly modest, as they will see themselves as unworthy of such attention. Trying to repay a favor, show a special kindness or  do a good turn for a modest person can lead to frustration and dissatisfaction if the modest person insists they need nothing, and there is no need for reciprocation.

Common Portrayals: 

Staff at charitable organizations, loyal campaign supporters of high profile politicians, janitorial staff, caregivers, supportive grandparents doting on their grandchildren, many artists and creative types, women in societies where the male is held in higher regard, employees of a lower station whose livelihood depends on not drawing attention to themselves

Cliches to Avoid:   

The modest-and-chaste girl meets a bad boy and he 'ruins' her; false modesty as a device to generate more attention on self; girls dressing modestly to characterize them as 'good' girls

Twists on the Traditional Modest:  
  •  Modest characters are often portrayed as having lower self-esteem. It is common as a plot device for another character to feel it is their duty to make them 'see their own value'. Show us a hero or heroine who is very comfortable with who they are, yet is a born supporter of others.
  • By nature, modesty is a often a background trait. Shove it to the front of the conflict line by thrusting a truly modest character into the limelight out of need. Do they take on this foreign leading role to serve the greater good, or crumble of stage fright?
  • What happens when you pair modesty with extreme intelligence and drive? A masterful tactical character who runs the show from behind the curtain because he understands that so much more can be accomplished behind it than in front!
Conflicting Characteristics to make your Modest unique or more interesting: Charismatic; Witty; Eccentric; Impulsive; Dishonest; Bossy; Manipulative

18 comments:

Natalie Aguirre said...

Awesome post. I always enjoy reading about the twists to try to make your character unique. Thanks.

Michael Embry said...

You have one of the best blogs about writing. I always look forward to your entries.

Loree Huebner said...

Great post. Modesty is such a difficult character trait. Love how you broke it down.

Silent Pages said...

Awesome post! Until I read it, I hadn't really thought of one of my MC's as 'modest', but he does seem to fit the bill.

He's actually sort of in the role of that second twist. :)

I've got an antagonist who KINDA fits the last twist, but I don't think modesty has anything to do with that. XD Just self-preservation and jerkiness.

Jeanne said...

Interesting points. Abilene is such a great character, but because of the alternating POV style, she shares the role as protagonist. That made me wonder - can you think of any modest protagonist in a single protagonist story?
Jeanne
jeannemoran.blogspot.com

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

I love modest characters.

Elaine AM Smith said...

This is a great post. I love it when a character starts out modest there are always so many more directions for them to move towards as they evolve.

James Chesley said...

I like the break down of modest characters. It gave me a great idea for a new character in my short story. Thanks.

writingsfromthepavement.blogspot.com

Debbie Maxwell Allen said...

Another wonderful addition! Thanks so much!

~Debbie

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks everyone! We are glad these character entries are useful to you. And Michael--you are far too good to us. So happy you enjoy this blog. :)

I like the idea of bringing a modest character to the forefront, and I think this twist really has the potential to create a break out character that the readers would love and root for.

Jeanna, I'm trying to think of a truly modest character in a single protag story. I think the closest I can think of might be Tom Hanks character in Forest Gump. What do you think?

Jeanne said...

You're right, Angela. Interesting, isn't it, how the exaggerated stories gave Forrest the larger-than-life feel we usually associate with a more self-assured protagonist.

tracikenworth said...

It could be interesting for sure to bring a modest character into the forefront, their survival or the survival of everyone around them, in this character's hand. Great idea!!

Janice Lane Palko said...

Great post. Often modest characters are often heroic, but don't realize it.

Becca Puglisi said...

Awww, I love Aibileen. Great twists. It's interesting to me, how modesty is largely viewed as a virtue, but modest characters are so often drawn as weak or timid.

Leslie Rose said...

I think modest understated characters are often the ones we learn the most from. These posts are so fabulous. They always give me another POV to sift my characters through. Thanks.

Heather said...

I love the idea of thrusting a modest character to the forefront. Hmmm.. I may have to try that.

Deb Marshall said...

MMMMmwwwwwa! Happy 'Versery! Checking back in after work. Ciao Bella's

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I tend to like modest characters. Aibileen is the perfect example. Great analysis here, as always. You always make me think in more depth about character traits. I so appreciate this. ; )

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