April 3, 2015 by KWills
Cynicism is the bitter, estranged child of scepticism and fear. In their place, both of these “parent” emotions have a useful role: scepticism can pour doubt on certain knee-jerk reactions, and fear can be a protection against recklessness. However, when they come together and take over they bear sour fruit: the cynic.
The cynic never has to test out a theory or take a risk, because disaster is a foregone conclusion. The cynic never has to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, because there is no doubt: everyone is evil, petty and stupid. The cynic is never wrong.
The cynic is a jerk.
Cynicism tropes can reflect the attitude of the characters or the writer (or both). Cynical characters can be fun, but if overused they can negatively affect the tone of the story. Cynical writers are like lemons: refreshing in small doses, but not something you’d want to take straight in large quantities.
Some common cynicism tropes include:
- Viewers are Goldfish / Viewers are Morons: Short scenes, short sentences, short words. Your audience is too flighty and ignorant to understand anything else.
- Black and Grey Morality: There is no “good”, only “less evil”.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: We clever people have no need for belief, faith is for idiots. (See also: Belief Makes You Stupid.)
- Science is Bad / Ludd Was Right: Progress is evil, technology is soul-destroying, and scientists are mad.
- Adults are Useless: Common in YA. Children have to solve their own problems, because adults won’t help you.
- Beauty is Bad: Physically attractive people are shallow and mean.
- Love Makes You Weak / Love Makes You Uncreative: Fall in love, kiss your life goodbye.
Cynical characters can express these views, then find their assumptions challenged as the plot unfolds. A cynical writer might play the tropes straight, especially if they reflect the writer’s genuine world view. A good story can have a cynical edge or two, without drowning the whole thing in snarkic acid.