1. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Making a pathetic alcoholic sympathetic and complex.

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Link the Writer, Aug 11, 2014.

    One of my POV characters (Let's call him Yevoka) in the fantasy I'm working on is, to put it short, a pathetic alcoholic. The story opens up with him, and so far, five hundred words in, he's not likable at all. He's pathetic, using Freudian excuses such as his rough childhood, his beloved dying shortly before they could elope, his father never letting him go explore and make a life for himself, his feeling unloved to paint himself the victim while he verbally lashes out at everyone else. If it helps, he's also seventeen. I'm intentionally trying to make him as unlikable as I can without going overboard. Because he has an arc where he begins to discover how wrongly he's been behaving and tries to make amends for his actions. To the point where he becomes a hero in his own right ala Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Except without the burn scar and daddy being the big bad. :D

    The thing is, while I want the readers to view him with disgust and go, "You're a pathetic bastard." I also want them to feel like he still has potential to change if he'd just let himself. Since it's the first chapter, and I just wrote the argument scene where he fights with his father over the former's poor behavior toward a young customer, how can I drop seeds of doubt in the reader's mind that this isn't all he is? That he can change for the better? Is it too soon? So far I have him begrudgingly admitting to himself that maybe his dad has a point, but that's before he takes a bottle of liquor to his room to get plastered and starts to remember the good times of his youth and how, in his mind, everything was shot to hell and its everyone else's fault. Would readers be able to relate to a pathetic alcoholic and want him to change?

    He seems like a complex character to me, but I want your opinion. Does he sound like a flat, stereotypical pathetic alcoholic? How can I make him more complex?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Watch a couple of episodes of Shameless (UK or US version). Frank is your character of focus. ;)
     
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  3. Garball
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    Garball Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. Supporter Contributor

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    I think if you occasionally show the pain, the reader can hate his current temperament but still root for him to be better. Illustrate him breaking down while he is alone or something.
     
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  4. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Interesting, I didn't think of that. Do you mean show him hating himself for his actions and wishing he could do better?

    I...did have an idea to have him inflict pain on himself by pricking needles in his arm while he's in a drunken state, but I wasn't sure if that was too far. He hates himself to that extent is the gist of it. Though I should probably cut to Chapter Two once he pulls out the needles if he's going to do that...
     
  5. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I find having a relatable character is overrated compared to a realistic character. Is Alex from A Clockwork Orange relatable? I should hope he isn't! But he's also rather complex, because he is a conscious mix of both the most cultured and civilized aspects and the most barbaric and inhumane in the same person. He likes to beat people to Beethoven.

    Garball's suggestion is pretty good, show the pain, show he's conscious - even if he doesn't know what of - of his own failures. Ask yourself what you want to do with the character; if you want to make a person of him, make him a strong personality. I know a few people with chronic alcohol dependency, and they are anyone. The alcoholism isn't their entire being, it is their reason to get up in the morning, but they do other things.
     
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  6. Garball
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    Garball Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. Supporter Contributor

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    I had a similar problem with my MC. He is by nature a misanthrope with no apparent reasons, a very detestable human being. I understand him, but the feedback I received is that nobody liked a story about an asshole that you can't root for. I went back and gave him some loss in life and that made a huge difference to the readers.
     
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  7. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Ah, I see. So give the readers some understanding why he's acting this way. They might find him an asshole, but if they understand why, and in this case, have him hate himself for not being better and feeling like a failure, they would root for him to do better.

    Though the pricking himself with the needles: is that going too far? I can easily come up with a reason why, and immediately cut away so the readers don't get to see what he does with the needles, but does that really sound like something an alcoholic who feels he's a failure in life would do? Or 'is it something he would do?' a better question?
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2014
  8. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Haymitch in The Hunger Games is another such character.

    While drunk and useless much of the time, we see he really does care and comes through.
     
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  9. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I will say as a word of caution about what I said realistic rather than sympathetic. You can have a character like Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye who is both realistic and sympathetic, only the novel is almost too realistic in a sense, and buries the sympathy between the lines. You have to play psychologist in that novel, and if you don't understand his reason you'll utterly fail to understand the novel - and no amount of hipster-masturbation is going to save you.
     
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  10. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    To answer the question in bold, you foreshadow it. The best way, in my opinion, isn't to get him into an angsty teenager mode, which I think your suggestion would do. Psychological or even physical pain, depression, all this given too early can bore the reader. You don't want to rely on angst to propel the story forward. Angst is good, but in small doses, and certainly not too early on. Also, I'd steer clear of self-harm, that conjures up very difficult-to-change character, and passive-aggressive tendencies and hurricane-intensity emotions might take the story in the wrong direction.

    A better way to do this would be to show him unusually noble and considerate in a completely unrelated matter. For example, he's just been a jerk, he storms off and is still his annoying, entitled self, but something happens, maybe a cat is being attacked by a pack of stray dogs, maybe a kid is being bullied, maybe an old lady drops her shopping, or something less cliche, hopefully, but show him show kindness to someone as a sign of good character. Perhaps he does this almost automatically, he still isn't nice, but it comes naturally to him to be a good person, sort of thing. It's a banal little gesture, he might not even stick around to receive thanks, and it might give him a flashback of some of his own traumatic moments (relevant exposition, so the reader will want to stick around to find out more). The reader will do a one-eighty, thinking, hang on, maybe there's hope yet for this character? Furthermore, they'll wonder, how did a person who is capable of being noble and nice, become an alcoholic at such an early age? Maybe he's only nasty to certain people, maybe those who drove him to drink? From those sporadic actions, a new character can emerge, given the right circumstances, and you have your arc.
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2014
  11. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    You have to give the character *something* likable about him or something that shows he's not all bad. He has to care about something.
    An easy way to do this is to make the character care about and for some animal. In our critique group we call this the giving-the-character-a-cat solution. It's common, though, because it works. And much easier if you can't make it a person he can care for and who we can see knows there is something good about him.
     
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  12. outsider
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    outsider Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would dispute whether you could actually be an alcoholic at seventeen.
    What constitutes an alcoholic?
    One man's alcoholic is another's enthusiastic drinker.
     
  13. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    @Lemex - Ah, so find a good balance/use judgement between realism and sympathetic? I'll give those books a read and study up on that. :D

    @jazzabel - Thanks for the suggestion. All of that sounds just like what he'd do when he's not around people who provoke him to act like a jerk. His character takes a sudden 180 that he seems to be a completely different character until he returns to the people he hates.

    @chicagoliz - Good idea. Even in the environment he so hates, he does certain things that remind the readers that he's not all bad. I'll think on that. :D
     
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  14. prettyprettyprettygood
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    prettyprettyprettygood Active Member

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    It really depends on what sort of person he is overall, but with that sort of character I'll still root for them if they have a sense of humour, a great turn of phrase or some other charm, such as self-deprecation (provided it isn't just self-pity). Something to show that there's still a mind ticking away in there.
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @outsider : Sadly, you can be an alcoholic at seventeen. Or a glue sniffing addict with permanent brain damage, a junkie, you can even be having some emphysema if you've been smoking since you were four years old. Especially in very poor countries, war-torn areas, you get to see a lot of really messed up kids :( The youngest alcoholic patient I saw die of multi organ failure (from chronic alcoholism) was only 23, and that's in the UK.
     
  16. Garball
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    Garball Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. Supporter Contributor

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    Going to the meetings.
     
  17. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    One guy in my critique group gave the example of the movie Sea of Love, which has really stuck with me. The movie is about two tough cops (one of whom is Al Pachino.) At the very beginning of the movie, in a scene that really has nothing to do with the plot, the police have set up this elaborate sting operation to catch and round up a bunch of men who are wanted for various offenses. They have said that they are giving away Yankees tickets or a chance to meet some of the Yankees players or something. Anyway, Pachino sees a guy who has brought his kid there and there's a whole thing about how the kid is so excited and how great it is to be with his dad. Pachino tells the guy to get out, basically letting him in on the fact that there are no Yankees there and he was tricked to come there so he'd be arrested.

    So right off the bat, this tells you something about Pachino's character -- he's not all bad. He's really a pretty good guy. Because there aren't a lot of opportunities in the rest of the film to show him this way.

    Another scene I've heard mentioned by someone else is the scene from Fargo, where the main character, Marge, meets this guy for lunch who she went to high school with. He's a strange guy, and really into her, but she isn't into him, but is still very nice and sweet to him and feels bad for him. The scene again has nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie, and some people think it's out of left field. But the point of it is that it develops the character.

    So, take that FWIW.
     
  18. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    My brother was a full fledged alcoholic by his late teens. At 35 he almost bled out with esophageal varices.

    It takes a hell of a lot of drinking over many years to get cirrhosis of the liver in your 30s.
     
  19. outsider
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    outsider Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah well, as soon as I'd posted I knew I'd get evidence to the contrary in return but you know what I mean?
    At seventeen, you're just a kid yourself. It would be, in my opinion, a difficult one to approach in terms of convincing the reader that the character is a chronic alcoholic at seventeen. Tough life or not.
    Not saying it couldn't be done but I think I would struggle to find it convincing.
    I would want plenty of internal monologue and background to the character.
    Just being honest and putting it out there.
     
  20. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    *insert obvious joke about Scotland's drinking culture here*
     
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  21. outsider
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    outsider Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're only a trainee alcoholic at seventeen.
    You have to earn that label.
    (I am joking, of course)
     
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  22. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Really, this is partly a 'show versus tell' challenge. Just telling the audience the character is an alcoholic -- maybe there'd be some skepticism. But if he's shown repeatedly drinking, being hung over, thinking about getting a drink, trying not to drink, denying he needs a drink when someone accuses him of needing it or drinking too much, drinking right before some important event for which he had promised himself he would be sober... those sorts of things would be more convincing. (It would even be possible for the character himself to claim he could not be an alcoholic because he's only 17.)
     
  23. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, I get that. But the reality is, there are lots of teen alcoholics these days, the drinking culture in high schools is much more intense (in some places) then when we were teenagers, and one could become an alcoholic after six months or a year of intense and regular binge drinking. Some quiet kids cope with terrible stuff in their lives by drinking alone. This is a fact, unfortunately, kids these days are doing more things more intensely, at a younger age. Most adolescent addicts come from dysfunctional families, most have a sad story. I think you are right, the backstory would be very important here, not in order to justify the 'diagnosis' but because it's doubly tragic, and also, teenage/childhood addiction is a bit of a taboo, so most people would have resistance to the very idea.
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2014
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  24. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I find it hard to regard anyone who's only seventeen as a "pathetic" alcoholic. An alcoholic? Sure, he could have developed a dependency by then. But "pathetic"? I'd hate to think someone that young is written off so easily. There are lots of young alcoholics and young assholes and young people you just want to write off as failed experiments. But dammit, I wouldn't give up on a teenager. There's too much to save. I don't think I could use the term "pathetic" for a seventeen-year-old.
     
  25. matwoolf
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    matwoolf Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was an alcoholic at seven, by nine I had chewed off my own cheek with the cravings for whisky.

    God damn irresponsible posters on this subject, now at least I have recovered, and have my bible, and the electric bulb. I can stare at the walls all day, if necessary. I shall live forever.

    My opinion OP...is that the idea sounds a little 'worthy' as things stand...a bit boring, it's not going to ring true, write what you know and all...atb
     
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