Nathan Bransford, Author


Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sympathetic vs. Unsympathetic Characters

Thanks so much to everyone who de-lurked yesterday. And notice how you don't have scurvy today? You're cured! Also a special thanks to WitLizToday, who provided some awesome/hilarious de-lurk stats, including a tally of the few states not represented and the number of de-lurkers who claim to be from the Internet and/or Never-Never Land. Also apparently lots of you were hungry. Hope you found food.

Characters. What to do with them, right? And what's the line between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters? Particularly the ones who do bad and horrible things? Why do we like some characters who do horrible things and dislike the heck out of some goody two shoes?

In this agent's opinion, it all comes down to the concept of redeemability.

Redeemability involves more than just actions. We've seen lots and lots of characters in novels and movies who do utterly horrible things and yet we love them anyway. But if characters are going to consistently do bad things and retain the reader's sympathy: they have to be likable. They have to be brave or brilliant or hilarious or charismatic or strong or all of the above. They have to possess qualities that we admire in ample quantities. We wouldn't normally like someone who eats flesh, but holy crap is that Hannibal Lecter smart and kind of hilarious.

Charisma minus actions = the redeemability meter

Now, redeemability is a fickle beast. If a character's redeemability meter dips below a certain base line, that character will "lose" the reader. We've all read moments where this happened: a character did something so horrible and shocking and irredeemable that there was no going back. We're officially done with that person. This may or may not be accompanied by flinging a book against the wall.

The redeemability meter often dips below zero when a character does something that's wrong and there is not sufficient explanation for their actions. They weren't misguided or deluded or well-intentioned-but-astray. They didn't have an excuse. They just went and did it, and the reader concludes: they're just evil. And there's no going back. The reader will make some allowances for a really likable character, but unlikability combined with unmotivated evil actions: that character has officially "lost" the reader. The worse the action the more insanely likable the character has to be.

And there are some actions that are just too far beyond the pale for even the most likable of characters, including using racial slurs and/or other powerful cultural taboos. (Oddly this does not seem to include killing people and eating their flesh. Books are weird that way.) There are also characters whose charisma level is so low it doesn't matter what good deeds they do.

It's fine for a villain to lose the reader. It's also fine for a hero to lose the reader if you're going all Greek tragedy on us and the hero is suffering for their fatal flaw in the climax.

But a protagonist, particularly a narrator, just can't lose the reader before the absolute end of the book, and maybe not even then. It's crucial crucial crucial that the protagonist, the person who the reader is most identifying with, has the reader's attention and sympathy throughout the novel. Otherwise your reader will just stop caring.

And then they'll stop reading.






113 comments:

Ink said...

This blog has a high-redeemability factor, and so if you eat someone... yes, I'll forgive you and keep on reading. Who else makes Cormac McCarthy jokes?

Bryan

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Jon Clinch's _Finn_ lost me right in the middle. We're obviously dealing with a dark character; I don't have a problem with that. I love dark characters. But there in the middle of the book this main character did something particularly heinous, and it felt arbitrary. There was no reason behind it. Because the darkness was suddenly not motivated by anything more than a whim, the story lost me. I didn't finish the book.

Anonymous said...

I call it the 'Hannibal Lecter' effect. You may find yourself disgusted by his brutality but still marvel at his sheer genius.

Morgan

RW said...

I was anxious about this post until I got to your caveat about the villain. Whew. One of the major technical problems in my story is an antagonist who is a really bad guy. The risk is that he comes off like a monster and therefore not human and not believable. So I'm dealing with that--but even if he's believable, perhaps he is still irredeemable. I think you're saying, and I would agree, that's not so much a problem with the antagonist.

Still has to be believable, though. So I still have work to do!

Marilyn Peake said...

Absolutely. Or on Star Trek, a character could die if they wore a red shirt. The audience was already prepared. :)

Nathan Bransford said...

RW-

Well, it can be a problem for the villain as well if the reader doesn't care at all about the villain. If a villain is just pure evil: that's not often very interesting. The best villains test both the reader and the protagonist and usually possess nearly equal skills and strength. If they're purely unlikable and irredeemable it's not particularly interesting for the reader to find out who wins.

Rachel said...

One of the biggest turn-offs in a protagonist, for me, is crippling insecurity. I can handle being unsure of oneself and having some awkward moments, but if a character, especially a narrator, doesn't like him or herself, I don't like them either. And I stop reading.

Josh said...

To introduce another pop culture reference-- you have the character Ben Linus on Lost. Episode after episode he does something utterly evil, but he is one of the most interesting characters on the show.

And IMO, what makes him interesting is that the show has set up that the evil things he does are for the greater good.

Ink said...

Oh, and it's nice to see my fellow Canuckians well represented among all the lurky folk. What a great place this is, eh?

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

Bane of Anubis said...

Great post - one of my issues is I tend to start with protags that are unlikeable in some way or another - perhaps too much so - and then try to redeem them later... without providing enough motivation for their nature.

As for villains, they definitely need motivation. They can still be complete evil or have evolved to that, IMO (see Voldemort), but evil for just being evil probably is only doable in high fantasyish type material (though motivation is still preferred, I'd think).

Travis Erwin said...

Loved this post Nathan. You did a great job of clearing the muddy waters of a difficult concept.

Bane of Anubis said...

On a completely side note, Bransford, I think I've been reading your blog way too much:

I had a dream with you in it last night. You had shaved your head to stave off male pattern balding and had set yourself up beneath a canopy (one of those you might find at a car dealership or on the side of the road during a parade). I'm not sure if you were providing advice or reading tarot cards... none of that mattered b/c

you were wearing a Toronto Raptors jersey. I asked you why you weren't supporting the Kings and you seemed flummoxed, as if you didn't know who the Kings were...

Anyway, usually I have more supernatural based dreams, but this was weirder than most of those... and one I'm definitely not mentioning to the missus.

Vancouver Dame said...

I've found that an unsympathetic character or villain can become more human if something happens to him that brings out our compassion, or respect. I find that villains need to be explored in depth to determine why they behave in such an anti-social manner. As for sympathetic characters, there is some element that makes us feel compassion for them, sometimes it's a flaw, or they may reiterate our own feelings. Developing character sketches helps me learn about my characters, and also suggests how they can interact to further the plot.
I believe the characters drive the plot. Another great posting, Nathan. BTW - welcome to all the lurkers who showed up on de-lurk day. Such an interesting spread of readers.

Samantha Elliott said...

Nathan, from your fingers to all writers' eyes...

That saying isn't nearly as powerful when modified for the 21st century. *fail*

Also, I agree completely with Rachel. I don't associate with people in real life who don't like themselves (if I can help it). Why would I willingly read about them?

~Sam (the Still De-Lurked)

Merry Monteleone said...

Okay, this is a great post, Nathan!!!

I think the biggest thing I see with newer writers, is that in the hopes of building an arc for their character they make them a bit too weak in the beginning. So what you have is a likeable enough character, but they keep making stupid mistakes or aren't strong enough for the task until midway through the novel... and if it's not done really well, with other characteristics making us root them on, we just don't want to read that far... then they become too stupid to live kind of characters.

Then there are other characters who are just too snarky or arbitrarily mean. I think in a lot of those cases the writer was going for humor, but it's just missing the mark on the page and not propped up with enough outstanding characteristics. It's okay to be a bastard if you have a little class doing it... if there's something to draw you to the character... Look at any of the Mob characters - Tony Soprano cheated on his wife continuously, screwed his friends out of businesses, killed his own nephew and yet, still rooted for him.

reader said...

I LOVE this post. These are the things no one ever talks about.

I found it interesting when reading some Goodreads reviews last night for a very popular book that I discovered last summer. A fourth of the reviews claimed the book's characters were one-dimensional, another fourth thought they were unlikeable. I was stunned.

The characters were flawed each in their own way, but also trying their best. What the heck do readers really want? If a character has a flaw they are pegged as not-likable and if a character's personality can be described as being a "leader" or "timid" then suddenly, they are pegged as one-dimensional.

It seems like you can't win.

DebraLSchubert said...

This is exactly what happened to me when I attempted to read "American Psycho" years ago. The mc, Patrick Bateman, was so despicable, I stopped reading about 2/3 of the way through. And this coming from a True Crime junkie...

AC said...

Another irredeemability point: stupidity. I can handle some, but GOOD GRIEF. Some characters are just too stupid to live.

I felt like that with the MC of "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England." I understand that the point is that he's not the brightest bulb, but about 1/3 of the way in, I just couldn't take it anymore and stopped reading.

Just_Me said...

I've had a couple of novels I've put down mid-book because the character stopped being sympathetic, but I think it's worse with a series.

As tempted as an author is to use a cliff-hanger ending it only works if I care whether or not the character survives. Maybe they get redeemed in the next book, but I have to care enough to pay $8 and read the book.

150 said...

TVTropes has probably a dozen tropes listed that deal with this, including Kick the Dog, Pet the Dog, Shoot the Dog, and Morality Pet, all helping to define the Moral Event Horizon.

No links because I'm sure everyone has things to do today other than read a wiki for ten hours.

MT said...

What about Meursault in Camus's The Stranger? He's the protagonist. He has no redeemability factor. He is passive. He mades the reader feel uneasy. Yet the reader sticks with him to the very end.

Mr. Bransford, do you suppose that characters in literary fiction are subject to a different redeemability calculus than those in commerical fiction?

Joel Hoekstra said...

RE: Reader said: "If a character has a flaw they are pegged as not-likable and if a character's personality can be described as being a "leader" or "timid" then suddenly, they are pegged as one-dimensional.

It seems like you can't win."

It's a delicate balance, and the scales will tip one way or the other for different readers. If you were a straight arrow in high school, reading a YA novel with a protagonist who makes poor choices via alcohol, drugs, sex, etc. might not have much appeal. If, on the other hand, you were a party animal in high school, you might totally relate to the same YA character's struggles/foibles.

The first (and only!) time I saw the movie Basic Instinct I was rooting for the serial killer most of the time because I thought all of the would-be protagonists were too stupid to live! But can sit through the occasional Jackie Chan flick and root for Jackie’s character no matter how ridiculous the plot/premise, simply because I’m willing to root for the underdog (and because Chan’s characters are usually up against seemingly insurmountable odds).

I’m sure for some folks, just being the underdog in a martial arts film isn’t really enough to sustain their interest in a particular character. But then they’re probably not going to go see a Jackie Chan flick in the first place. The point being: the flaws of your protagonist are going to be overwhelming to some and perhaps run-of-the-mill to others. You can only please some of the people some to the time. So when trying to strike a balance between “likable” and “flawed,” consider your audience. Why to you find the character likable? What character flaws to you find intolerable? The audience for your story (if it has one) will hopefully be on the same page as you.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I did find food a few hours later.

I was glad for the villain caveat as well, though I agree that the reader must care about the villain for it to be interesting. Others have brought up Ben Linus and Voldemort as good examples of generally unsympathetic villains, and I think the reason people are drawn to them is because they are so psychologically interesting. They have complex motivations, opportunities to change, developed backstories and personalities, and each believes that his actions are serving some greater purpose (although both are really acting rather selfishly). And they both have a redeeming moment or several: the second half of season 4 in Ben's case, and Harry's "dream" in the train station that reveals how sad and small Voldemort really is (as well as Voldemort's backstory, to a certain extent). My first thought of a despicable villain whom we should all hate, but all kinda love, was Chigurh from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Again, interesting psychology, especially since he seems almost robotic at times (I was waiting for him to exclaim, "Kill! Kill!").

Kim Kasch said...

Oh...I'm not so sure you can't have weak characters that you don't really like. I felt that way about Bella-in the Twilight series. But when you put all the characters together and the romance-it's a fun series.

Of course I'd never want my daughter to be like Bella and date a controlling/manipulative man . . . but I enjoyed the book - and after all - it's only meant to be entertaining fiction-not real life role models.

Marilyn Peake said...

I think part of the brilliance of the graphic novel Watchmen is that the author does an incredible job of developing seriously flawed superheroes, allowing the reader to gain insight into their motivations. Some of those characters are likeable, others not so much, and every one of them is seriously flawed. Set against a backdrop of politics and quantum physics, most of the characters continue to redeem themselves. The many ways in which the author redeems Jon as a sympathetic character even though he has lost most of his human characteristics is remarkable. The ways in which Jon tackles quantum physics, personal disintegration and time travel expands rather than shrinks our understanding of the universe. I found the part about Jon on Mars in which he moves comfortably throughout time as one of the most riveting parts of the book. I think that at that point his aloofness became better understood and he became a more sympathetic character.

Nathan Bransford said...

MT-

Some brilliant writers are able to off the seemingly-irredeemable character just by making them seem so alive. Mersault and Humbert Humbert spring to mind.

It's one of those things where there's never a totally firm rule, but if you're going to attempt a Mersault or Humbert Humbert you'd better write like Camus or Nabokov.

Loren Eaton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Holloway McCandless said...

By coincidence Zoe Heller discusses this very issue in today's NYT, in an interview about "The Believers":

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/books/26zoe.html?ref=arts

I liked your "crucial crucial crucial" line. Interesting that Mr. Nabokov looked down on reader identification, which I suppose made it possible for him to glorify the mind of a child molester in his fiction.

Loren Eaton said...

I dunno, I've never much minded unsympathetic protagonists (à la The Prestige) as long as they were interesting.

Anonymous said...

Oh Yeah!!!! Hurray!!! The old posting format returned while I was out with sick pets.

My daughter loves House. And he is a big rudeman most of the time.

I think that when the evil character has something interesting,they are more compelling. Also, it makes the winning more interesting.

I have been reading a book to put myself to sleep lately. It has a lot of action, but I have NO IDEA what the protagonist's motivations are. It's like he just falls into his scenes blank.

I find that boring, i.e., it is an affective sleep aid.
However, revues have raved about this fantasy writer and book.
(Or so it says on the jacket.)

Anonymous said...

At the outset, let me say, "Nathan is always, repeat, ALWAYS right."
But...(you knew it was coming, right?) two quandries remain for me as a reader & would-be writer.
1. I've found myself disliking main characters in many quite popular books for what may be rather minor flaws (the narrator in The Kite Runner, for example, I found so cowardly and snide, I couldn't take him. Sorry, Housseini fans. Just my experience of it). Sounds like other readers have the same reaction to weakness & timidity. How much stock should we, as writers, put in a critic's analysis of a character, given that tastes on this element are as individual as on anything else?
2. If one is writing something with a mythological bent, might simplification of a villain's character be in order? (Sure, Milton wrote a rather complicated Satan, for example, in Paradise Lost, but I'm wondering if my Bad Guy really has to have a deeper emotional motivation than lust for power.)

Rick Daley said...

Great topic, thank you for your insight.

I'm waaay to analytical to let my characters get away without a motivation. My problem is explaining too much backstory for the sake of advancing the plot. I'm working hard to find the perfect balancing point.

Hannibal Lector is an great example.

Chigurh is, too. As evil as he is, though, he is thought provoking. What time do you close? No. Now is not a time...Flipping a coin. What is at stake? Everything. Just awesome phychology at play between the characters.

Dexter Morgan is another great example.

Onovello said...

Bravo, Mr. Eaton. Beautifully said.

Nikki Hootman said...

Nathan... have you ever played Dungeons & Dragons? Your breakdown of Charisma in this post leads me to believe you might enjoy it quite a lot... ;)

Lots of references to Lost, but I'm surprised nobody has brought up House yet. Essentially the show revolves around the guy that everyone hates but can't live without. He gets away with everything - horrifically derogatory comments, torturing his patients, nearly killing most of them... etc. etc. And yet everyone tolerates him because he's SO DAMN SMART.

And I keep watching the show because the writers continue to dangle that little, tiny, hair-thin thread of redeem-ability in front of me. I know the show couldn't continue if House ever did "break," but all the same, I always feel like he's right on the verge of seeing the light.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. I think that's why even though I had great personal feedback from editors and agents, everyone confessed having trouble getting behind a dulcet princess who axe-murders her parents in Chapter One. (Oh, sure, it all gets fixed in the end...but a PG re-write was definitely in order!)

I can take a hint. ;-)

Dawn

Anonymous said...

I think people like House because he actually says what he wants to say without censoring himself.

How free would that be, even if it is rude.

Jodith said...

For me, it's not so much the redeemability of characters as much as the act being "in character". I've seen so many authors that seem at loose ends in their book, so they have a character do something arbitrary just to move the story along. Those are the ones that get thrown in the corner for me. I just feel like the author was stringing me along all this time telling me one thing and then doing something totally opposite for no good reason.

I remember one book (can't remember the name off the top of my head) where the character killed herself in the end. Now, the character was seriously selfish all the way through the book, but she was also a strong, self-assured character. The ending to me just seemed a rip-off, because this was a character I just couldn't see taking the easy way out. I never read another book by that author. It felt to me like she'd written her way into a corner and took an easy way out instead of dealing with the issue and rewriting to get to a believable conclusion.

Dara said...

Perhaps it's just me, but I'm not a fan of the whole "anti-hero" protagonist. I have a hard time ever sympathizing with them, even if they have redeemable moments. If they never seem to learn from those moments and continuously act evil, I stop reading (or watching the movie) or I characterize the book as less than satisfying if I end up finishing it.

Of course, I like a somewhat balanced antagonist. I think there's more believability if he's got actual motivations behind his actions rather than just acting on a whim. I should probably take my own advice though and work on this applying this aspect to my antagonist, who probably comes off a bit too close to pure evil. I need to clarify his motivations and establish some sort of connection.

Roland said...

I'll take this chance to vent my strongest gripe with The Oscar winning shlockfest, Slumdog Millionaire.

The brother in this film is such a perfect example of an unsympathetic character. Here's a guy that has no personality save for selfish jerkiness and who endlessly commits horrendous acts throughout the film like... um ... raping his younger brother's girlfriend and selling her to a crime lord.

And yet the writers decided to give him a completely unwarranted moment of redemption at the end of the film. Wh...what?

There are characters that make bad choices and then there are characters that are unapologetically evil starting from birth and ending in a bathtub full of cash. I get it. He was obsessed with money and that's why he acted the way he did.

Ok, you still wanted him to get it in the worst way. And honestly I wanted the girl to be an instrument in his destruction. Of course the only reason the girl is in the film at all is to look pretty and be saved by a man, any man ("I'm sorry about cutting your face off the other day, I'm not like that anymore for some reason, run!"

"S'ok, I'm not really a person as is demonstrated by my not doing or saying anything in the entire movie").

Some movies have plot holes. Slumdog was hurt by character holes.

To stay topical, you can compare the brother in Slumdog to another Oscar winner - The Wrestler. Here's a great example of how to do it right. This guy is a total loser that abandoned his daughter, and well, I just loved him. You can't not like him. And not just because Micky Rourke is a relentlessly charming maniac, but because the character was actually well-written.

Ok, livejournal-style rant over.

Merry Monteleone said...

I think it's interesting that so many people are pointing out popular fiction where characters have come across as unlikeable - and I agree with some of them. I think that's another layer to fiction that's absent in most other things - it's subjective. The reader's sensibilities are as paramount as the writer's for the novel to resonate.

Interesting that Mr. Nabokov looked down on reader identification, which I suppose made it possible for him to glorify the mind of a child molester in his fiction.

I don't think he looked down on reader identification - in fact, he took great pains to buffer himself from the character by relaying Humbert Humbert through another narrator. It's likely that Nabokov felt it was compelling to tell a side of the story that wasn't often seen.

I have to say, Lolita was one I threw against the radiator multiple times. I wouldn't have finished it at all if it's wasn't assigned to a group of us, and therefore I'd be sinking everyone's grade by not finishing. But, it was the subject matter, which he didn't flinch from at all - his writing was breathtaking. But yeah, I hated the character... and yeah, I think we were supposed to... but we were also supposed to understand him.

Sarah said...

So many good comments! (Marilyn, your Redshirts comment made me laugh- the person you know is gonna die to prove the situation is serious.)

Ditto about weak or stupid characters. I love Anne Elliot in Persuasion. I suppose that outwardly she'd seem weak, but there was so much going on inside that I never thought of her that way.

Ditto #2 about evil, but interesting characters.

For me, I'll stick with an evil character if I respect them on some level, if a compliment from them would mean something. If Hannibal thought I was a worthy opponent? Creepy, but I'd definitely take it.

Lara said...

The incredibly cheesy but irresistible 80's writer Judith Krantz wrote excellent villains. They'd have these very human flaws -- greed/ fear of poverty, fear of illness, stuff like that -- and she'd have them going about their business until the adorable protagonist comes along and happens to have diametrically opposed goals. I also think Ira Levin was good at villains. A villain can just be somebody who wants something that the hero doesn't want.

Neil said...

Good advice. The other thing that irks the living piss out of me is when the protagonist doesn't seem particularly quick on the uptake, or doesn't ask that really obvious question. That's what gets on my nerves about Lost: nobody ever grabs the bad guy/entity and says, 'Never mind your bullshit! What the hell are we doing here?!'. Heroes (particularly in first-person narrated tales) who don't think as fast as their readers are infuriating, and in my opinion that affects their redeemability, too.

Anonymous said...

I have also been really turned off by several books that read from the point of view of the main character
when that character's attitudes are snippy, self-important, or racially biased.
It is a risky way to try to get sympathy.
I think, when I, as the reader, am not expected to "agree with" snippy attitudes, self-importance of a character, their racial bias, etc.
that I am more sympathetic to the overall story even if those are that character's traits.

Mira said...

This is interesting.

And I agree with your post, Nathan, about charisma and reedemability.

I think the other thing that can make evil characters sympathetic is if they are in some type of emotional pain. Their 'evilness' stems from the 'evil' choices they make to get out of that pain.

We identify with their pain, and with the difficulty of making those choices.

Sweeney Todd comes to mind. Almost every character in it makes horrendous choices. But since each character make that choice in an attept to feed some terrible yearning for something - justice, love, security, sex - almost every character in it is very sympathetic.

We all know what it's like to yearn for something that is denied to us. So, we feel sympathy for characters that do as well.

Even if that means they end up eating people.

Marilynn Byerly said...

Giving House a cane and a bad leg was a stroke of genius because it made a brilliant sociopath vulnerable, and vulnerability makes a character more sympathetic.

I'm not a fan of unsympathetic protags or villains because a character who isn't sympathetic is one-dimensional, and that's bad writing.

Hilabeans said...

Great post.

I find that books I relate to the most are ones where the protagonist makes enormous mistakes. For example, as a kid, the first book I truly fell in love with (besides the standards of Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma) was a book titled Ratha’s Creature about pre-historic cats. Stick with me here – I know I may have lost some of you. The protagonist faces an immense amount of conflict and then reacts in a very jarring way: she attacks her own cubs before leaving them alone in the wild. The suffering she deals with afterward (I still get a little choked up *sniff*) seems so real. Although you HATE what Ratha did, you still love her. You feel connected with her, sympathetic even. Yes, I am in tune with pre-historic cats. My point is, Ratha’s redeemability factor registers very high.

Again, great post – love character analysis.

Bane of Anubis said...

For me, shows like House are too hard to stomach. If you're going to tackle a subject in a quasi-real way, the characters need to be more believable... I'm sure there are people like House; even some surgeons have similar personalities... but no doctor exhibits that type of bedside manner on a continual basis - they'd be sued constantly; no matter how good they are, they'd be out of a job.

If a story is supposed to be set in the realm of reality, I need realistic characters. Caricatures may draw more attention and may be more exciting to create, but when the motivation or back story is developed to explain the character's cartoonish nature, I find myself rolling my eyes more often than not.

I'm too analytical about it, I'm sure, but come on... people like House become Radiologists or Pathologists.

Rita Arens said...

I think the protagonist has to be authentic. Some effective protagonists are authentically confused or brainwashed, but as long as they believe they're doing the right thing for whatever reason, it's okay. As for the comment about intellect, I think that authenticity element can overcome it: I'm thinking of Flowers for Algernon. What a powerful book, and yet half of it was narrated by a mentally retarded protagonist.

Really, it's just hard to be talented enough to pull it off.

Carley said...

Nathan, you are dead right on this one. Even in real life, aren't girls always attracted to the bad boys, for whatever reason? I like making my villians bad, but in a cool way, so the reader is enthralled by them, then finds that they are rooting for them, maybe just a little. Not to say that the MC isn't wonderful, and you've quit hoping for their victory either-what a balancing act!

Rachel said...

Regarding what Kim Kasch said, "weak" characters can definitely be fun and sympathetic. Bella in Twilight was one of them. Despite her insecurities, she was spunky and strong-willed. I do have problems, though, with characters who hate themselves. Bridget Jones...chick lit...

Bane of Anubis said...

Roland, the brother in Slumdog wasn't evil or even unsympathetic... I think the movie did an excellent job of establishing the character arc. The brother did what he had to do to survive - a more likely arc than the MC. From the beginning, the brother was shown as selfish, but had revelatory moments where he showed his deep loyalty toward his brother (e.g., when the MC was going to be blinded by the gang boss)...

I was a bit conflicted by the whole let's slash her and then help her escape, but I've always been a sucka for the Darth Vader moments in stories... as, I'd guess, many people are.

Anonymous said...

I confess that the bad guy, Sylar, in Heroes is so much fun to watch as he is changing and growing. He can't help being endowed with his bad nature, but there is something happening in him.

Characters you start out hating that get you to love them are really so much fun!

Quark in Deep Space Nine was one of those for me. And Dr. Archie Morris on ER started out as a pot smoking slacker and then was able to sing beautifully in the Christmas concert when no one else could, and in spite of three nipples, became a babe magnet, a friend to children, and completely sympathetic.

Samuel said...

Great post, and talk about timely. I've just started an edit where my main challenge is to increase the reader's sympathy with the narrator. I'm not sure if my approach to tackling this comes under 'redeemability', but I'm going to try and increase the reader's understanding of the narrator's motivations; psychology, in other words. Because clearly the narrator doesn't lose my sympathy - or else how could I write him? - but I've not yet got that understanding across to the reader.

I think the most unsympathetic narrator I've ever read is Brett Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. It wasn't an enjoyable experience.

Roy Hayward said...

Nathan,

I don't know about the whole "redeemable" part of the equation. For me, when the author/character loses me is when they do stupid unexplainable things. You describe this as the character goes pure evil. Yet I don't find Mr. Lecter very redeemable, and mostly evil. Yet his character is captivating. My self analysis is that I am kept because he does interesting things.

On the other hand, I sometime toss books when the characters, say, wander into obviously dangerous situations for prosaic reasons. Especially if they survive long.

Some of the best, most compelling, captivating characters are villains that are completely unreedemable, and don't even desire redemption. But they do clever things to accomplish the goals and realize what motivates them.

This boils down to why I don't watch Hollywood Horror movies. I am glad when the guy who goes off alone in the spooky woods gets eaten by the monster. He deserved it.

But the guy who drowns others to escape with the loot. I can see that, from his perspective, this rational. So I keep going.

So I don't know if this makes me cold and heartless. But as a reader, I sympathize more with a rational character that does bad things, than I do with brainless character that does angelic things.

Roy

Madeline said...

Hmm, okay de-lurking a day late!

Here's another TV reference - in "24", you have Jack Bauer who is the protag/a good guy who does "bad things" for "good reasons."

Lupina said...

Battlestar Galactica makes fascinating characters out of human-race-ending, killing machines by: making a few of them love humans, showing their strange religious motivations, and choosing very attractive actors to play them.

It makes me wonder...do we always like villains more if they are good-looking?

Sarah Jensen said...

Bane--I love that dream! Sounds like the weird dreams I always have. Though none with Nathan. Yet. I probably will now. Heehee

Emily Cross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter said...

This is one of those many instances where literature refelcts reality. There's a certain truth to this in the real world. People may b eless likely to admit in a real person than they would a character, but there is a point to which charisma can bring someone beyond any failings. Politicians are a great example of both times when this works and times when it doesn't.

Liz said...

I think Ms. Rowling managed this very well with Snape. She very nearly dipped below the zero line with Harry in one of the books where he's an insufferable whiney little wanker. You had to cut the kid a lot of slack for what he's going through and becoming a teenager at the same time.

Bane of Anubis said...

Liz - Snape was definitely a great character and I agree with the whiny-ness factor... a symptom, I believe, of JKR's severe case of serialitis starting in book 4 that, unfortunately, was never cured.

Mira said...

I agree with the point about vulnerability, too.

One of the reasons I think we find Hanibal Lector sympathetic is because he is locked up for life, and being treated abusively by guards.

Hilabeans said...

Lupina -

Yes, I love good-looking bad guys.

But I wonder, do you think some villains are hot simply because they're villains? Hmm...

Someone mentioned Sylar from "Heroes" - there is something kind of sexy about him as the tortured villain. But he does need to control those eyebrows (just my opinion).

Justus M. Bowman said...

Excellent post.

ryan field said...

I think trying to maintain a conscious sense of objectivity is important.

Henry said...

This discussion is missing something: The main protagonist in a book is the writer, not the characters: the writer is the driving force behind the book. Books aren't just a bunch of stuff that happens, it's about how the stuff is expressed, how those sentences are constructed. And the emphasis on likability or redemption or other publishing buzzwords overlooks the importance of what the author is saying beyond the book's action, which is really the most superficial part of a novel - if the novel's any good.

But here someone says Lolita is about "child molesting." If you're that much of a hyper-literalist and don't read between the lines, then maybe how the writer expresses something doesn't matter.

Marilyn Peake said...

Fascinating discussion.

I think that, in movies and TV shows, the visual element allows a lot of room to play with good and evil and add depth to characters. In Heroes, after Sylar has already started to show some desire to rehabilbitate himself, the scene in which he's wearing an apron and making pancakes for his son is hilarious because the visuals are in extreme contrast to his earlier history. Same thing for the characters in Kill Bill - all the scenes of typical suburban life are in such stark contrast to the violent lives the ninja-type assassins lead, the contrast rounds out the characters with a great deal of humor.

Another interesting aspect of characters ... What about when inanimate objects take on the role of a character, e.g. the house in Mark Z. Danielewski's novel, House of Leaves? That house is nuts. Sometimes, it's a warm, homey place to be. Other times, it's a freakin' nightmare out to destroy everyone who steps inside.

Merry Monteleone said...

The main protagonist in a book is the writer, not the characters: the writer is the driving force behind the book.

Only if the book is memoir or autobiography. While many great authors discuss elements from their real lives or thoughts, or great themes they wanted to address through the writing of fiction - you can never assume a work of fiction to have direct reference to the author's life unless the author actually states that. Sometimes it's just fiction. Readers overanalyzing the fiction in a way that makes assumptions about the author is a good way to make many authors censor themselves for fear of being misrepresented.

And Humbert Humbert was a child molester. There are other layers to the novel, but they don't make that statement any less accurate.

Stuart Neville said...

I walked exactly this tightrope with the protagonist in my soon-to-be-published novel. He's a killer. And not any kind of romantic, principles killer. Like William Munny from Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (a brilliant example of a monster made human), my protagonist has killed men, women and children. The novel is essentially his struggle to put it right. He just happens to put it right by killing more people.

As it happens, I've just returned from my first ever public reading, at my local library. I read the first chapter, which spells out the horror of what my character has done. I was deeply conscious of what I was putting front of these kind people; they weren't crime or thriller readers, just ordinary folks who like books, so I was worried how they would take this character.

As far as I could tell, they took to him well.

I think the key is putting the reader right behind the eyes of your monster, let them see the world as he sees it. Evil does not know its own reflection. If your reader is truly in the mindset of the character, then they will not see the reflection either.

T. Anne said...

Nathan I found your response to RW above very interesting. Finding the balance is the ultimate goal but never-the-less it can feel like splitting hairs when it comes to execution.

Nathan Bransford said...

T. Anne-

And as the differing responses to LOLITA, House, AMERICAN PSYCHO and others show, it can be a highly personal equation.

Some people have been disagreeing by pointing to "interesting" characters -- I think this is another way of describing the interplay between charisma and motivation. Characters like Ben Linas aren't interesting because they're dumb, strange, and antisocial, they're interesting because they can be charismatic and clever. And when we understand why they act the way they do, even if they do things like Ben did last night, you still are fascinated and wonder what he's going to do next.

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan,

Do you think that fiction sometimes holds the attention of readers/viewers because it's holding out the possibility of redemption like a carrot-and-stick? If Ben Linus turns out to be doing so much evil for evil purposes, he may lose the interest of the viewers; but Lost seems to be in the hands of such capable writers, I doubt they would do that before the end of his story. And, if he turns out to be doing everything for some greater good ... well, that's one of the reasons viewers have been giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Hilabeans said...

Nathan,

ABC should pay you for all your Bachelor and Lost plugs. ;)

hil

Bane of Anubis said...

That's the rub with TV shows, particularly of the ensemble and/or serial variety like Lost (which despite the numerous jump the shark moments, is nicely paced, plotted, twisted, and, above all else, characterized) - it's a lot easier to develop a characters up and downs - and even if you don't like him or her, there are other characters to whom you can relate... The window of opportunity in a book is much smaller unless you're a front-shelf author who has legionary devotion.

Furious D said...

My first novel had a character who was really a nice guy who always tried to do the right thing. Now his attempts to do the right thing ruins his life, and forces him to fight for survival and save the day. (It was sort of a "no good deed goes unpunished" sort of fable.)

My second novel featured a really unpleasant character. In fact the first words in the novel was another character describe him as a monster. And during the novel he does terrible things, but there lies the rub. My anti-hero does all these terrible things, but they're all to either protect the citizens of his small kingdom, and ultimately to save the galaxy. Plus his personal life was horrendously unhappy, being a bitter and lonely man whose only true love shot him in the face. So while he did terrible things, there was both an element of redemption and punishment to his life.

Roland said...

Bane of Anubis,

The brother saving MC felt like a character-hole. I wanted to buy it, but of course he reverts to jerky little creep immediately by intentionally leaving the girl behind. Ok, so he only cares about his brother and no one else, but wait he does a bunch of crappy things to MC after the orphanage. They never showed a reason for his cruelty or for his sudden and brief changes of heart. The thing is, as soon as a writer decides to investigate what makes a character such a piece of garbage it becomes so easy to show that same character's desire to change and act sympathetically.

Holloway McCandless said...

Ouch! I've never been called a "hyper-literalist" before. But what I "literally" posted was that VN "glorified the mind of" old Humby, which seems to agree somewhat with Henry's post about expression vs. action, though characters can only exist through thought, dialogue and action (cf Henry James "What is character but the determination of incident?" etc). And because I'm on a quoting jag, here's VN: "Literature is not a pattern of ideas but a pattern of images." (From his "Lectures on Russian Literature") VN does a pretty good job of giving us images of what happens to Lolita in those motel rooms, not just the incredible language in HH's head, or the desire that drives HH.

Marilyn Peake said...

Holloway,

"Literature is not a pattern of ideas but a pattern of images."

Love that quote. Literature involves so many moving parts, I think that some parts can be minimized if other parts are done well. Literary novels that include beautiful use of language and perceptive focus on characters can succeed without much plot. Other books succeed primarily on the basis of plot alone. Danielewski created House of Leaves as an experimental novel in which the pattern of print on each page reflected the action in the story, an attempt to create in the novel some of the effects inherent in film.

Mira said...

Merry,

Re. the quote by Henry 1:11, I have to agree with him:

"The main protagonist in a book is the writer, not the characters: the writer is the driving force behind the book."

I think that any book is actually the writer's unconscious working things out. All the characters represent a piece of his psyche, and they interact with one another.

We all face trying to integrate the different aspects of our character, and any good piece of fiction illustrates this is symbolic form.

It's literally impossible for a writer to create a character that isn't a part of himself.

No one can truly know what it is like to be someone else, although we can guess, study and empathisize - the ultimate perspecive is only and will always only be our own.

Until they invent mind-reading.

Beyond that, there's the concept of 'voice.' When you read a book, beyond the characters and the story, you are aware that someone is telling you that story. That's always the real person talking to you, the real main character - the author.

Marilyn Peake said...

This topic is waaaaaay too interesting. I need to figure out how to go into lurk mode...poof!, just like a ninja.

Mira said...

I know, Marilyn.

When I first read this topic, I thought, hmmm, Nathan covered it well, do we really have anything to talk about?

But I think we do! :-)

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mira,

I can't speak for all writers and I'm sure some writers are much more autobiographical than others. While I get what you're saying, if it's true that all voice is really the author (and I have a problem with referring to the author as the main protag - it's not the same thing), but if it was true that all voice is really the author, then why do so many writers manage over long careers to write very different characters in very different works, crossing genres and using various dialects, etc.?

While it may be true that some writers work the way you suggest, I don't think you can blanket that statement across all authors and their work. And when you tell me that what I'm writing is working out some deep personal issue, it marginalizes my ability to create the world I'm striving for accurately.

There is a buffer between Nabokov and Humbert Humbert for this reason, I think. And I think all authors should be afforded that privacy - that the work stands on its own, as a reflection of the author's writing ability - yes, but a reflection of their morals and values? Their own deep fears and wants? I don't think that's a fair thing to foist on someone simply because they can writing fiction well and believably. If the author says their work is autobiographical, that's one thing - saying they must be is over-reaching by the literary critic.

And the other thing here, that no one seems to be touching on: Reader responsibility. The reader's own perceptions, life, and experiences do as much to color the story as what a writer purposely puts into the work. To me, believing the author to be the main protagonist, to be of paramount importance, diminishes the role of reader. Without readers, authors don't have anyone to communicate with - and it is communication, the goal being to make the reader feel and experience.

The whole line of viewing the author as the driving force bothers me because it diminishes the very real contribution of the reader. I think the best writers are humble enough to know that once their words are out there, they belong as much to the reader as they do to the author (not monetarily of course, but in thought).

My thinking on this may be different than yours, or a lot of peoples'. But then, if my thinking on this is different, than the blanket statement on author's motives can't be correct for every author, either.

sooper said...

Bathan, I have a kind of random (but important!) question to ask you: Is it ever ok to send an agent a partial when they request a full? For whatever reason-- is that a big no-no in the agent world?

Thanks!

Nathan Bransford said...

sooper-

I think you can answer that one on your own.

anotheranon said...

Anon 11:40 said:

"...I think people like House because he actually says what he wants to say without censoring himself..."

I agree, and I think too, with House, he is shown as being vulnerable and that makes him likable. He has no friends, is awful at the game of love. Out of loneliness he's slept with a prostitute, and also erased the phone message where the cancer doc had a offer to move in somewhere else. He wanted him to stay but didn't know how to ask. That's all very sympathetic

Taire said...

MB you nailed it. It is the vulnerability of the villain that gets us. We really want him to die, he deserves it. We can see that he will suffer too, when somebody else makes him pay for what he has done. So very satisfying.

John Darrin said...

Harry Flashman, the protagonist of the book series by George MacDonald Fraser, is a great example of a truly unlikable character that you like. He is a liar, cheat, philanderer, coward, and general all-around scoundrel, but he is a lot of fun, and despite his inclinations, things somehow turn out well.

Roy Hayward said...

Mira,

I have to agree with Merry on this. There are so many ways and methods to use when writing and finding your characters voices. I think that making a blanket statements, "The main protagonist in a book is the writer" or "any book is actually the writer's unconscious working things out."

For me, I use a great deal of imagination when I write fiction. I think that some people write from their own persona's, and some people write from research and observation, and so forth.

But if you read a book and then think that you know some deep secrets about the authors psyche or emotional make up, you are both insulting the author and diminishing the art.

Hmmm. That sounds harsh. If so, then I apologize. But its a pet peeve that I have been accused of before. I am not my job. The things that I am are greater than the things that I do/write.

Cloudscudding said...

I read an interesting article about how to keep a character sympathetic even when they're doing Very Bad Things. Key tricks involve showing them having doubts and showing other characters liking them. In fiction as in life, we are more likely to empathize with characters that we see other people empathizing with. Having the character show affection towards others, including pets, is also a biggie. My work in progress has a character who has to do terrible, awful things to nice people for all the right reasons, so I'm going to be pulling out all the stops to keep him likable, up to and including the use of cute, fuzzy animals.

Mira said...

Hi Roy and Merry,

Nice to meet and chat with you.
:-)

Sadly, I realized I'm all argued out from earlier in the week. Shoot. It's too bad, I usually love a good argument, and you make some juicy points I'd love to chew on.

I will say, briefly, in my defense, I was talking about the psychological process involved in writing a story, not motivation or depth of imagination.

With that, maybe Henry or someone else will take up the counter-point to the argument.

Or not. It's good to have different perspectives on things.

Even if, ultimately, I am always right.

Just kidding.

(not really.) :-)

Mira said...

Oh.

"The things that I am are greater than the things that I do/write."

Amen to that, Roy.

Completely agree with that.

StrugglingToMakeIt said...

This post is both helpful and timely. I've been puzzling a lot lately over why some beta readers and others who critique my ms don't love my protag. I can see it more clearly now. I guess unless I expect my readers to read my mind as well as my pages, I have some fleshing out to do...

Vancouver Dame said...

Well said, Merry, your points are excellent. I agree with your comments about the relationship between author and reader.

General statements are just not applicable when there are so many variants that come into play when we create our stories and our characters. Readers will always be subjective about why they like a particular character, regardless of the character traits given them by the writer.

Diana said...

Nice post, Nathan! Thanks for giving me something new to ponder today.

My friends and I feel this way about Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. You can make a pretty long list of hideous traits (sexist pig being pretty high on the list) and yet every woman I know who's seen Iron Man LOVES him.

On the other hand, I recently read a romance where I disliked the heroine so much that I actually felt bad that the hero got her in the end. He could have done so much better.

Michael said...

I don't think it has much to do with redeemability and a lot to do with motivation.

If an evil character is motivated by something the reader understands and identifies with, then the reader will like that character. Look at a lot of the comments..."I liked him until he did something heinous and arbitrary...there was no reason for it".

Evil+reasons you understand = likeable

Evil+reasons you don't understand = hated

Honestly, who wanted Darth Vader to reedem himself, strip off his awesome black suit and become a wimpy jedi knight? We loved him because he was a total badass, yet was motivated by things we understood.

A tragedy factor also helps a lot.

Laini Taylor said...

I always think of Vic Mackey from TV's The Shield as a great example of a terrible character who you can't help liking, even though he has done things so heinous you shouldn't be able to like him AT ALL. So well written -- and acted. The Wire is full of characters that walk that fine line too. Why can I only think of TV examples and not books? I read. I swear :-)

Mystery Robin said...

I concur. I put down a highly acclaimed mystery after the protag did something unconscionable. And for me (a mother of 3) it was not coming home while his wife was miscarrying a baby. That was it. It didn't matter that he didn't totally get what was going on. She was pregnant. He should have gone home. There was no going back.

And yet I can forgive Jack Bauer all manner of sins - he was there for his wife when she was in trouble!

-Ann said...

I'm on a big Friday Night Lights kick for the last two months. Not only is it a fabulous show just to watch, it's like a master class in story telling and character development.

Tim Riggins is, for me, the pinnacle of what you're talking about with likability and redeemability. He's totally messed up and makes all kinds of horrible choices but he's got so much heart and potential. (And okay, okay, the fact that he's ridiculously hot helps, but it wouldn't be enough if he wasn't also a good person inside.)

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

This is really helpful.

"This may or may not be accompanied by flinging a book against the wall."

Sure hope you're not reading it on a Kindle at this point....

Stef Kramer said...

Do you think we are compelled by evil characters because perhaps a teeny part of our being can identify with a certain flaw? I often asked myself what intrigued me about Heathcliff and Cathy. And why do I keep rooting for Darth Vader? (Was it because he was such a good-looking Anakin Skywalker?) Those characters are complex and interesting because their evil actions seemed to somewhat motivated by their warped sense of love.

Anyway, fun discussion item.

Ajax said...

I love some of the examples presented here, I loved Nabokov’s treatment of Humbert Humbert, and I am a Thomas Harris fan as well, and I have 79 episodes of HOUSE DVR'd. Confessions all. But having a sympathetic villain, as some have mentioned above, IMHO is key. I am surprised we have not heard from LOTR fans here, especially after the Vader reference. GOLLUM/Smeagol has to be the most sympathetic villain of all time. I think Tolkien almost went over the top to make sure that we as readers understood that he should be pitied. But redeemable? Gollum? Hmmmmm….

A final morsel for thought... What if your likeable character does something terrible? My MC sets off a bomb that kills a pile of civilians and women and children. My character is emotionally distraught over it and may never recover. He has erroneously over mixed some chemicals and the bomb is too powerful. So read accidental LARGE explosion. Should I have this happen at the end, or early on so he has to deal with it throughout the story? I kind of thought of this scene as the climax, but I do want people to read the next book I write! ;) (And this one when I finish.)

Taylor K. said...

Definitely one of your better post, Nathan. I think over this issue quite a bit as well, especially when it comes to villains. While it is sometimes the case I have trouble thinking most villains are bad just to be bad. A lot of the time, as with the war against terrorism in our own lives, the bad guys actually think they are good. Why do they think this? What motivates them? It's a complex question that can apply to all villains.

Vampires is a simple example. Most (Until recently, that is) see them as bad because they kill people, but vampires don't kill people just to be evil (in most cases). They do it because they have to in order to live. Same with the carnivorous animals in stories. The raptors in Jurassic Park didn't want to eat Dr. Grant because they were evil, but because they were hungry. Given logical minds would they view their hunting of prey as noble as humans often do?

Simple examples, I know, but I think they help prove my point. Villains who view themselves as good, or who even have what they consider noble motivations, are often far more interesting than those who are just evil. This is why Dexter is able to carry a whole show on his own.

Anonymous said...

I think we are not allowed to be evil or bad ourselves, so we project some of it vicariously out onto the evil or badass characters and satisfy the element. It is allowed in *fantasy* but not permitted in reality.

We all have an ability to feel a full range of emotions.
Our safeguards keep us from acting out from criminal or socially unacceptable or unethical reactions.

(Thank goodness.)

And our good impulses react inside of us often passionately against the evil character who does and is able to act out his badness.

But on some level, we have our bad *fantasies* and they can be thrilling or disgusting or both.
In some cases, we walk away and separate from bad characters and we should.We are too evolved for them to interest or thrill us. In other instances, they are like that BAD CAT Bucky and we need him in the room.


And Roy,

I totally agree about how annoying it is when someone thinks your FICTION is about you, the writer.

That's a deal breaker in a writers' group.

Big Reader said...

Re: Iron Man -- Robert Downey Jr. OOZES charisma and intelligence. I think he could play any villain and I'd like him.

And I have to agree with Roland on the subject of "Slumdog Millionaire." Some of the characters were totally inconsistent, IMHO, and the romance was just thrown in and had no real emotional resonance.

How come "The Visitor" didn't win or even get nominated? Now THERE'S a convincing character arc where the MC is redeemed.

Anonymous said...

I think Gollum was the perfect portrayal of the hopeless addict completely seduced by his addiction, while waves of his previous humanity surface for bare moments making us realize the cost.The movie portrayal made him even more sympathetic, even dear at times. He could have once been a real boy.

Anonymous said...

I read my first novel, a murder mystery, to my sister while we were on a long car trip. She loved it until it was revealed that the murderer was her favorite character, she was pissed. Lesson learned.
Paddy

JLR said...

I have an anti-hero, so this is of particular interest to me. My goal is to show sympathy in small things he does or about him from the get-go. Also, I try to give a good reason for why he does the things he does. I also add in other reasons for a reader to be intrigued by him, to keep interest in him high.

So it's extra work and an extra struggle to keep him sympathetic enough, but my character and his story is worth it in the end.

Jodi

Merry Monteleone said...

But if you read a book and then think that you know some deep secrets about the authors psyche or emotional make up, you are both insulting the author and diminishing the art.

Exactly! And well said.

I totally agree about how annoying it is when someone thinks your FICTION is about you, the writer.

That's a deal breaker in a writers' group.


Yep, yep. It's intrusive, that line of thinking and there are enough reasons for a writer to pull back for fear without lending credence to the idea that their fiction is a statement on their person. What if I wanted to write about a serial killer, or date rapist, or well any other of a myriad of unsympathetic characteristics? Who would tackle those stories if they were assured that the vast majority of readers would mistake them with their characters?

Mira,

It was nice to meet and chat with you, too.

I will say, briefly, in my defense, I was talking about the psychological process involved in writing a story, not motivation or depth of imagination.

This statement was the exact thing I was disagreeing with, and still do. I loved literary analysis in high school and college - and still do in literary discussions. It's fun for mental gymnastics to decipher many layers that may or may not have been intentionally drawn into a work. And I understand the draw to comparing an author's life with their work.

Sometimes there's vast reasons to suppose that the story works out personal issues. Certainly that case has been made by many literati on some of the classics. But it's a supposition, not a fact. I can't agree with armchair psychology for every work of every writer, and while specific cases may lend some merit to the exercise, I think the intrusiveness of trying to maintain this thesis as a blanket to cover all writer's psychological process is both wrong and dangerous. Especially if you're a writer.

Likely we're not going to agree on this. But thanks for the discussion.

Trashy Cowgirl said...

I loved this post. My current protag is what I would call an anti-heroine. She's an alcoholic, exotic dancer who always makes the wrong decision and consistently lets the male hero down, yet I have received an enormous ammount of comments saying that they don't think my protag is an anti-heroine, because she is too likeable. But heck, I loved Duddy Kravitz and he was a world class schumuck. You don't have to be a hero/ heroine to be likeable.

When it comes to lit, sometimes it just feels good to root for the person who doesn't do the right thing. My theory is that we seek to find oursleves in characters. They can act out th ethings we fear to do ourselves, or mirror the things that we have blundered. And, you are right Nathan, as long as those characters can still be redeemed from their actions, or still appear crafty at least, there is hope for the rest of us mere mortals.

Grym said...

Enjoyed this, thanks Nathan

Anonymous said...

One of the best examples of this is the movie High Fidelity. John Cusack's character is completely deplorable, self-loathing, aloof and border-line insane...yet you want him to get the girl. How does THAT guy end up getting the girl?! Genius...and a side of John Cusack.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I'm finding 'Game of Thrones' great for sympathetic villains. I'll decide one character is so low I just want them to die, and then they'll show their fear, weakness or love and I'm all confused again!

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