1. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    Evaluating whether protagonist backstory is too unsympathetic.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by X Equestris, Dec 1, 2015.

    I've been writing short stories to flesh out the backstory of my main character, but I'm trying to make sure it doesn't come off as too unsympathetic. I would appreciate your feedback on this shortened version of her backstory.

    My main character, Arlise, is the daughter of a major nobleman and commands a cavalry company. The first short story opens up shortly after a decisive battle in the kingdom's civil war, which sees royalist forces crush the army of a noble attempting to usurp the throne. The king cuts his cavalry loose to pursue the battered remnants of the opposition and, if at all possible, kill the Usurper to make sure he can't raise another army. He has already slipped the net once before. Arlise's company ends up on his trail, and catches up with him at a small town that evening.

    Though Arlise and her company manage to kill some of the militia infantry that had been fleeing towards the town, the place is protected by a wooden and earthen wall, and the gates are shut. The Usurper, his bodyguards, and significant infantry are in the town, so Arlise decides that even if they can breach the gates, trying to fight through the town would be too dangerous. She decides to smoke out the Usurper by setting fire to the town. One of her captains raises the possibility of the Usurper and his men disguising themselves as commoners and escaping, as he had previously. Being caught up in the heat of battle and determined to stop the Usurper, she gives the order to capture anyone they can, and kill anyone that might get away. This order comes back to haunt her.

    Arlise has her company surround the town and uses the company mage to set the company's arrows on fire. Her horse archers fire over the walls, setting the town on ablaze. This flushes out the Usurper's men as intended, along with the townsfolk. However, there prove to be far more enemy soldiers than anticipated, and Arlise's troops are stretched to the breaking point. With the battle so tight, her men don't bother to take prisoners, as they won't be able to hold them. The battle lasts through the night and into the next morning, when the fire burns itself out. The Usurper's body is found dressed as a peasant, but the victory feels hollow to Arlise. Seeing the destruction of the town and the deaths of so many innocents shakes her to the core, and she greatly regrets the orders she gave.

    When she returns to the army, she finds out that her father died in the previous day's fighting, and that she is the head of her house. Though she is hailed as a hero by pretty much everyone for ending the civil war, she absolutely hates herself for what she did, and about three months after the battle, she abdicates in favor of her younger brother. Arlise ends up becoming a sword for hire for about four years, and at her lowest tries to drown out her sorrows with alcohol and sex, which is fueled by her belief that there is no redemption for her.

    Eventually, she starts trying to change for the better on her own, and makes a little progress. While riding to another job, she happens across an injured Watcher on the road (the Order of the Watchers exists to protect people from magic and magic related creatures). He warns her that a large group of undead is headed for a nearby village, which she had just left that morning. Arlise takes the man back to the village for treatment, and helps the militia defend the village when the undead attack that night. A few days after the battle, the Watcher tries to persuade her that she is already on the road to redemption, and offers her a place in the Order. Though she still doubts whether or not she can find true redemption, Arlise takes his offer and joins the Watchers.

    So, do you think it's a decent change arc, or is it too unsympathetic in the beginning?
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Is this the actual story of your book, or is it the backstory?

    If it's backstory, I think you're fine. You'll dole it out as needed and as you think readers are ready for it, and it'll never be like a club over the head, and it will work just fine.

    If it's the main story? Honestly, I think your main challenge will be that your unsympathetic MC is female. I'm a woman, and a feminist, and still I judge female characters more harshly than I judge male characters. What might seem merciless but justified in a male character will seem cruel and unnatural in a female character. Look at Jaime vs. Cersei in Game of Thrones. Jaime's damn close to a hero in the later books, but Cersei really doesn't get that kind of sympathy.

    Which isn't to say you shouldn't do this. But be prepared for a challenge.

    Also be prepared to do some thinking about whether you need your character to be sympathetic. Again, with a female character, maybe that is necessary, but there's certainly a long literary history of fascinating, intriguing (male) antiheroes. Maybe readers don't HAVE to sympathize with your MC.
     
  3. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is backstory. There will be some hints and references to some of these events, but the full story won't come out until maybe around a third of the way through. So readers will already have had time to get acquainted with present day Arlise before getting this look into her past.
     
  4. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wouldn't say it's a problem, then. Show that she's "tortured", feed out the reasons for the torture in little bits, and you're all set!
     
  5. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    How to garner sympathy for a character: show he/she cares about something outside him/herself. (note: show, not tell)

    Read Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat!" for more info.
     
  6. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think I'll be fine building sympathy. I just want to make sure that her involvement in what a modern person could easily call a war crime (even though Arlise never intended to cause such widespread civilian death) won't completely destroy the sympathy that has been built up earlier in the story.
     
  7. wellthatsnice
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    wellthatsnice Active Member

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    i think this is all fine. How she reacts to her actions makes her sympathetic. She is clearly haunted by the consequences, she can't cope with the pain that she caused innocent people. That is the making of a great flawed protagonist.

    A great comparison character is Black Widow from the Marvel universe. she was a violent killer who began to loath what she had become. She is constantly battling her past demons, but is now trying to find some kind of redemption.
     
  8. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    Glad to hear it. That's exactly what I was going for.
     

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