1. madeleinefarraday
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    madeleinefarraday Member

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    Building Sympathy for the Villain - Betrays the Reader?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by madeleinefarraday, Apr 11, 2013.

    In my latest story, I start off with the villain. He is a future President in the year 2052, he instigated a nuclear war, then hid in a bunker under a Colorado mountain. He sits comfortably in his underground prison with his family while people starve on the outside. Then he travels back in time to 2015, saying he wants to send a letter to his future self about how to avoid the war. Supposedly he has an attack of conscience.

    Well, he really has no attack of conscience. He's really only out for himself.

    HOWEVER, through most of the novella, he is painted as a sympathetic character. I do have foreshadowing, but it's built within a character that nobody could trust - a fellow criminal who sees through the President. He tries to warn everyone that the President is actually evil, but nobody listens to him, because of his own past.

    At the end of the novella, I reveal the President's true motivations, in one of the final scenes.

    Will this lead to the reader feeling betrayed? I even have a plot point that I JUST started to incorporate - where he starts to suffer from a time-travel sickness. His body starts to break down because of the paradox. Do I build too much false sympathy for my character?

    Thanks for any insight,

    M.
     
  2. erebh
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    erebh Contributing Member Contributor

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    personally I prefer to find out the character is not who I thought he was, as long as there's plenty of logic to it.

    I feel cheated when I see the end half way through the book or when loose ends are far too easy to tie up for the author.

    Go for it!
     
  3. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    It sounds good to me. I don't think I'd feel betrayed. I'd probably be more inclined to think "Whoa! I didn't see *that* coming!"

    I think it's great to have sympathy for the villain. There was a tv show called Smallville, which was based on the Superman story, and largely took place during his teen years. For many years on the show, Lex Luthor was portrayed fairly sympathetically, and he was friends with Clark Kent for quite some time. I really liked this twist, and I still liked him, even as he was turning "bad." Similarly, the show Breaking Bad is showing the development of a protagonist who, at the start of the show inspires about as much sympathy as possible -- he's a sick, almost-broke, high school teacher who might die in a couple of years, and has been relatively risk-averse for most of his life, pretty conformist and even slightly meek. He evolves into a cold-hearted, ruthless killer over the years, and part of the idea of the show is to see just how far the viewers will still sympathize with this character, even as he starts doing some immoral things, and his relationship and interaction with his wife devolves.

    I know these aren't exactly the same, because you seem to worry about the reader feeling betrayed since he or she doesn't know at the outset that this character is actually the villain. But I think it's a good twist, and if it's done right, could be brilliant.
     
  4. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    I'm a little confused. "Villain" traditionally suggests an antagonist, yet you explained the story as if he was the protagonist. If he is the protagonist, I'd go so far to say it's crucial for us to sympathise with him in one way or another. Even if he does do immoral things. I'm a movie guy, so I don't know if you refer to this as crisis -- what I learned to refer to as drama. Drama = a protagonist in pursuit of a goal in conditions of conflict. In order for us to care if he reaches his goal is if we care about him. Otherwise, I wouldn't feel betrayed because I probably wouldn't bother reading to the end. Maybe it's different with prose. I don't know. It's late. Correct me if I'm talking shit here lol.
     
  5. jeepea
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    jeepea Member

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    I think part of the answer to your question might lie in what point of view you use. If it is third person omniscient and you jump from character to character, then I would expect that at some point we would have the president's point of view and if I didn't see his inherent evil, then I would feel that you, the author, tricked me by intentionally withholding information.

    If you used third person limited, you would have to see through the eyes of a character who didn't know about the president or you end up in the same place as third person omniscient, intentionally misleading the reader. The same with first person.

    So, if your point of view doesn't come from either the president or the man who knows he's evil, then I think this could work if you do provide at least a few clues to his true nature. I believe that the reader always wants to come away from reading a novel with a surprise ending thinking: 'Oh, that makes sense. I should have seen it coming.'
     
  6. madeleinefarraday
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    madeleinefarraday Member

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    He is the antagonist, but the story starts off with him.

    Later I introduce the protagonist, who is a man who suffers from a brain trauma and develops a medical condition where he has delusions about death. The protagonist must overcome his illness and try to block the villain - the time traveling President - from accomplishing his goals.
     
  7. madeleinefarraday
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    madeleinefarraday Member

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    I am definitely using 3rd person limited. I am not proficient enough of a writer, yet, to do Omni. I am reading a book written in Omni right now, by Michael Crichton, who I don't think accomplished this very well, and it's driving me crazy.
     
  8. SIDunbar
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    SIDunbar Member

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    "Too much sympathy"? No such thing.

    I'm sort of glad now, that we are at a place where we don't feel the need to Disn-ify our villains (make them supreme evil, never mention their families or true feelings beyond the bad things). If the President is indeed human, I see no reason why he can't do terrible things and also be conflicted about it. In fact, I think that's the most accurate portrait we can paint of each other-- as people who all bleed red, who can inflict pain but who can also experience it.

    In the end, if we truly examined ourselves, we would find selfish motives behind 98% of the things we do. The desire for self-preservation at (almost) all costs is literally written into our DNA.
     
  9. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    Actually, I'm working on a project right now in which I have a character that's a "protagonist" who I'm intentionally trying to get the readers to hate and an "antagonist" that I'm trying to get the readers to feel sorry for. Personally, I like it. It's something different from what readers usually expect when they pick up the book.
     
  10. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    I just have to say that the idea of an evil time-travelling president is awesome. Of course, it all depends on execution. I think the best way to have him seem sympathetic is to show how he really loves his family. Doesn't have to be his family, but something commendable like that. If he's truly doing everything just for himself - and not for his family - then that would be hard to sympathize with.
     
  11. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    ^Word.

    OK, that makes sense. And like people have said, sympathy for the villain does no harm. Nuance is always interesting.
     
  12. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    I really like that idea. I like it when a story or a character surprises me. I like books that keep me on my toes! As for betrayal some people may feel that way. I think most would appreciate that you were able to deceive them. I think it gives the character more depth as well. Real people are layered and there are many times a person's true motivations are unclear. Books that make you think and try to figure out what's coming next are great.
     
  13. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    People will only feel betrayed if you flat out lie or the reveal doesn't make any sense.
     
  14. JayClassical
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    JayClassical Member

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    My favorite villains are the ones I want to win!
     

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