Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Character Stereotypes: The Cynic

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

What exactly is a cynic?

Main Entry: cyn•ic
Pronunciation: \ˈsi-nik\
1 : a faultfinding captious critic; especially: one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest

I hate it when Webster’s definition has me looking up another word to get the full meaning, but captious means “marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections.” Basically, a cynic is an unpleasant person to be around.

People do not consider cynicism a good trait. These are not the people we seek out to eat lunch with or to babysit our children. They don’t inspire us to scale mountains or overcome obstacles. They are obstacles themselves.

Authors have, by and large, given cynicism to a character more as a vice, a personal thing for him or her to work through on an inward journey. I’m hoping to give some insight into how cynics get that way.

Most people are not born with this disposition, they become this way due to life circumstances. For this exposé on cynics, I want to examine a few key characteristics of cynics that need to be present in your manuscript to make their cynicism ring true.


What you’re about to read might be hard to believe, but if you think about it, it’ll make sense. Most cynics start out optimistic and full of hope. They probably put a lot of effort into something at some point, expecting great results, only to get very little or nothing in return. Their hopes are dashed, along with their faith in others. It is critical to have something like this in your character’s backstory.

Writers tend to gravitate toward a cliché of a male cynic hero who tries hard to get a job promotion, but some young upstart, relative of the boss or other not-as-deserving person gets the job instead, foiling his efforts. This outcome turns the hero against others.

The female cliché is one we’ve all read before, as well. The heroine puts all her eggs into one romantic basket only to have them returned to her broken and unrecognizable. This heart-wrenching event, no matter how far back in her past, turns her off love for good (until she meets the hero, etc.).


If this type of disillusionment goes on long enough, these people will become depressed at their life situation. They begin to think that nothing they do in life really makes a difference, and this is the definition of helplessness.

The one psychological disorder most marked by a sense of helplessness is depression. That’s not to say all cynics have to have depression. The more areas of life that their cynicism touches, the more likely they might be clinically depressed. For example, a person can be pessimistic just about his work (environment, boss, coworkers), or she can be negative about her work, church, family, government, and dog.

A good rule of thumb is not to have your character cynical about everything, doubting everyone’s motivations, suspicious of every facet of his or her life. Why? You’ll have a harder book to write with more ground for the character to cover in order to reach some point of “healing” catharsis.


Cynics deal in the currency of sarcasm and biting, scathing comments. In doing this, they display hostility toward others. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this is who they truly are, because it’s actually a front.

What do we know about hostility, then? Hostility is outwardly turned anger. You might have heard it said that anger is a secondary emotion, and this is true. Anger can cover a multitude of emotions people don’t want to feel, like fear, anxiety, disappointment, guilt, worry, hurt, frustration, jealousy, or shame.

Cynics’ main emotion for their hostility is fear of being hurt. They project this tough, rough, you-can’t-hurt-me attitude because their biggest fear is that some dart will hurt them and penetrate their façade. The idea behind this is that if they assume the worst, then reality won’t be such a big disappointment and, therefore, they are better prepared when the worst happens. Thinking positively got them nowhere before (see Disillusionment), and they globalize that assumption to everything.

3 Steps to Breaking Away from the Cliché

1) Make the cynic care about something.

Emotional detachment is safer than emotional investment. Cynics using sarcasm and rudeness try to distance themselves from any particular outcome. But give them a reason early in the book to have a vested emotional interest in a specific outcome, which goes against the very grain of a cynic, and you have immediate inward tension.

2) Make the cynic face his fear.

Once cynics care about something, they ultimately will come to a crossroad where they have to face the fear of whether they admit they care, or walk away (or be rude, biting, etc., to mask their feelings). This will be the outward tension.

3) Give the cynic one situation in which cynicism works in her favor.

There is some value to being a little cynical. It’s not all bad. Cynics are generally interesting people, and many can be knee-slapping hilarious. Let your cynic showcase his or her “talent” by being right about a con artist, hoax, or get-rich-quick scheme.

However you portray your cynic, the reader will want to see him or her change by the end of the book. If by the end of the book the cynic comes to a place of balancing negativism with a healthy dose of realism, you’ll have done your job well.


The Character Thrapist