1. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    The Limits of Reader Sympathy?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Killer300, Aug 20, 2012.

    Mainly, how grotesque can a character's means, or for that matter aims, be while still keeping the character sympathetic to a reader? For that matter, even empathetic? The reason I ask this is because it's partially just an interesting question, but also because I find myself asking this with characters of my own who have rather... dark aims, not just means.

    It seems like with means, the reader will tolerate pretty much anything as long as it's justified well. Rorschach, for example, despite killing, torturing, and having somewhat sociopathic characteristics at points is still a beloved character by many who is seen as the hero of the tale he's in.

    I have more thoughts, but am curious about others here.
     
  2. Cynglen
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    Cynglen Senior Member

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    I believe the key to getting your readers to tolerate, accept, or enjoy a questionable (or really any) character's actions is to follow the adage: "Familiarity breeds fondness." Develop your character's story before he really gets to the nasty stuff; make the reader feel like they understand him/her and then the dramatic action(s) of the character will be either acceptable or so surprising the reader will be shocked and desperate for justification from the character. That seems the best method to me.
     
  3. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Yes, this is an excellent point, and was what occurred, partially anyway, with Rorschach.
     
  4. fwc577
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    fwc577 Member

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    People will tolerate anything as long as something likeable remains. Just look at Dexter.
     
  5. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Pretty much. From what I understand, Dexter is the last person you'd want to meet alone in a dark alley in the middle of the night, but there's something about him that makes us want to keep watching.
     
  6. HayleyEditor
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    HayleyEditor New Member

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    Vulnerability is important here, even if it doesn't justify why a character is evil (in fact, it's kinda cooler if it doesn't relate to why they're evil at all if you're seeing how far you can go with this). Even a hint of weakness will humanise a demon.
     
  7. ArtWander
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    ArtWander Contributing Member

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    Exactly as Hayley put it. Weakness is the glue that holds our attention to a character. They don't even have to be doing what we feel is right, just as long as there is enough for us to sympathize with.
     
  8. Hettyblue
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    Hettyblue Member

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    This is a really interesting topic - I always find myself drawn to the darker characters in a story. A skilled writer will present you with complex personalities as all people are capable of good and bad actions. Therefore if you want to retain sympathy for a 'baddy' (at least initially) then they need to be witty or have an interesting backstory to explain their villainous acts. Wholly 'good' characters are a terrible bore so they need flaws just as villains need redeeming features.

    'To err is human but to forgive is divine' so putting readers in a position where they can magnanimously forgive or pity the evil-doer is the limit. I cannot forgive child abuse or rape so that would put a character beyond the pale for me. But you can have great fun with a wrong 'un in your story. ;-)
     
  9. TheSerpantofNar
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    TheSerpantofNar Active Member

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    Look at Walter White on Breaking Bad you felt sorry for him at the start of the series now he is just a sociopathic cold monster and kills with zero issue. I don't know I don't find writing good guys interesting I don't like happy endings then again most of my characters are grotesque and often violent or do depraved things and actions. I think it depends if you want to have sympathy for the character really if they do deplorable acts that can be hard to do or get harder to do of course it depends on your genre I think your writing in.
     
  10. DanesDarkLand
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    DanesDarkLand Senior Member

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    Remember the movie Payback with Mel Gibson? He is a complete ass, lousy tipper, cheap, a common thief, but because he was the underdog, and had money stolen from him, and had some scruples that he didn't want the whole amount, only what was owed to him, it was a movie in which you favored this baddy over that one. same thing in writing. Must be something that can make you say that his badness is tolerable, as least for a while. Are you talking about the Watchmen guy who says in the movie "I'm not locked in here with you! You're locked in here with me!" I loved that character!
     
  11. TheSerpantofNar
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    TheSerpantofNar Active Member

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    Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire is kind of that way he is a killer and a gangster but you root for him against the other gangsters. Although when he killed Jimmy I wasn't shocked really in that world killing someone tends to be the answer although I think killing Jimmy was needed for people to get Nucky wasn't playing around anymore.
     
  12. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Yes, Rorschach is the ultimate example of this in some ways. There's a reason there was a wave of 90s anti-heroes, many were trying to imitate Rorschach.
     
  13. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    Sympathy can come from several different angles, like being the underdog, an antihero, or even the person's past. A character who is flawed, sometimes mildly, other times in a deep way, draws sympathy from a reader. It shows them that the other person is like them, and the light bulb goes on. "Hey! I can relate to her, because..."

    A well rounded character, written correctly, can bring about sympathy.
     
  14. writerwannabe13
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    writerwannabe13 Member

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    I humbly think that if a character has one small bit of humanity in them they could perhaps be forgiven evil.
     
  15. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I dunno. Some readers find it difficult to forgive monsters.

    Let me recall Stryker from X-Men 2. Even if they had a scene of him sobbing his eyes out in front of a grave of a beloved that was killed by a mutant (just an example), or had flashbacks of when he was actually a good man (another hypothetical example), I still would have a hard time trying to forgive him for all the things he had done to the mutants that are actually innocent. I don't care if your entire family got murdered by someone, you do not get to persecute and/or hurt innocent people that belong to the group that murderer is from.

    For a scenario: Let's say my MC's parents were murdered by a Chinese person. The MC grows up a raging alcoholic, and somehow finds himself in the care of a little orphaned Chinese girl. Then he begins to abuse her by smacking her, pulling her hair, telling her what a worthless human being she is. Who in God's name will forgive him if I then spent chapters reflect his past to when he was a good man? When he wasn't this abusive, raging alcoholic? Who would forgive him if they read about him crying at his parents' graves, wishing it didn't have to be this way, etc.

    If I were reading about this MC, I would not like him. Even if he felt remorse, even if the subplot was him realizing what an ass he was being, and trying to make amends, he would have an uphill battle to fight in order to gain any shred of sympathy from me. One quick scene of him sobbing in a bar won't make me feel sorry for him. I would hate him even more, as I would think him a weak, gutless coward.

    I think it'd have to depend on how the character acts. If that same MC I mentioned did nothing but ignore the girl, treated her as if she were another part of the house, yet didn't physically or emotionally assault her, I'll find it in my heart to have sympathy for him.
     
  16. ScaryMonster
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    ScaryMonster Active Member

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    I recently wrote a chapter in which one of the protagonists in my story is a sadistic psychopath who torturers his lover both physically and psychologically in front of her watching 12 year old son. The psychological aspect of this scene was more disturbing then the descriptions of physical abuse.
    I actually crept myself out whilst doing it, and I felt ill at ease knowing that I could write this sort of scene so descriptively.
    The point of this was more to explain how the child who is mostly likeable but who has a child's sort of callousness, is turned into a monster by the actions of the older man.

    It does advance my plot, but I'm worried that it might be too much; I can see certain sensitive readers tossing the book aside because this.
    My hope is that the reader will remain sympathetic to the boy who was traumatised even when he goes on to do horrific things.
    So is anything too much? I’d say not if it advances the plot.
     
  17. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    It appears rape, bigots, and abuse are pretty much the only areas a reader has a hard time stomaching. Additionally, both are great for explaining how a character himself or herself acts. Even bigots I've seen become sympathetic as long as they aren't the Klu Klux Klan type.
     
  18. ScaryMonster
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    ScaryMonster Active Member

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    I recently was dragged (not that I'm into musical theatre) to see the theatrical version of South Pacific which is based on the actual 1930s script.
    It really brought home what a bigoted time that was. I find it odd that it made me feel so uncomfortable and yet people seeing it in the 30s wouldn't even have noticed.
     
  19. The Hollow
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    The Hollow Member

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    ...Which is hilarious, because murder is much worse than all three of those things.

    I know this is probably going to make me sound like an idiot, but I also think that the attractiveness of the evil character in question also plays a role in whether people like him or not. I've never heard of anybody really liking Sauron (although I do think his costume is cooler than Darth Vader's) or Voldemort or some other unattractive arch-nemesis of the hero, yet I know plenty of Draco Malfoy, Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), and Mickey Knox (e.g. myself) fans.

    So if you want your own bad guy characters to gain at least a few fans, it probably wouldn't hurt to make him very attractive at least.
     
  20. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Doesn't Rorschach throw a wrench in that, since I don't exactly thing fans would find him attractive(although what do I know, maybe he's hot to many.)
     
  21. Michelle Stone
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    Michelle Stone Member

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    But there is so much to like about Nucky. You like him almost from the very beginning. He has several redeeming qualities. He's the ultimate nasty protagonist. I'd like to craft the ultimate antagonist. The most evil despicable anti-hero ever. A Darth Vader. How do you make someone like that likeable? Okay not likeable... but get your readers to want to follow every move? Vader doesn't have a single redeeming quality until the very end (forget the first three episodes, I'm talking about the first three, which ended up being the last three... so confusing... so popular) yet he is so darned popular. Sorry about the movie reference.
     
  22. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    This is kind of a prime example of how important context can be in considering how people will identify with a character.

    In a story told from the POV of gangsters, the police can be the enemy.

    Come on, honestly, who else was rooting for Sonny Corleone when he spits on the FBI agent's badge?

    Now switch to the Untouchables, all the sudden gangsters are bad again. Crooked cops are even worse.

    In both examples, notice how friendly feelings are brought upon the MC. In both movies, the MC is heavily involved with family. In fact, their main fear is that their enemies will harm their families. Their enemies, be they gangster or cop, are portrayed as completely amoral people who are cold and calculating.

    If people are OK with Michael Corleone shooting so many people, I think that gives you an idea of how far you can take it.

    Sorry about all of the movie references but I think it gets the point across.
     
  23. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    My "main main character" murders 30 people at age 16, very early on in the story.

    I'm not pretending to know the real answer, but I do think reader sympathy can be "created" to a great extend. Perhaps the most important thing is to not try fooling them, and by showing, not telling (though if your character really IS bad and DOESN'T regret, the case is much different). In my case I try to do it through showing the character as having been in a type of "trance", having being distraught, and regretting the actions after the fact and in every other way being a very good person. Only one other person ever gets to know he did it: his future girlfriend. She is utterly shocked, but has at that point known him long enough and loves him high enough to know, in her heart as well as mind, that he is, if not was, a very good person, and she absolutely believes both what he says he did and how he has felt about it afterwards. They go on to live happily together for decades after that, nothing having changed, end up having two kids, and both end up murdering (more) people, but this time the ones murdered are evil, not innocent.
     
  24. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Interesting, as that reminds me of an idea of my own story involving a guy who killed his father. Yes, he was abusive, however I don't plan on revealing that until much later.
     

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