Saturday, June 7, 2008

When good characters do bad things

A person who never puts a foot wrong wouldn’t be an easy protagonist to like, so good characters need to have flaws or fail. Here are a few ways to keep them sympathetic at the same time.

1. The negative characteristics are a racial trait.

Star Trek gets away with this a lot, and some fantasy novels do it to a lesser degree. If the reader learns that all unicorns are hostile and aggressive towards humans, and a unicorn is forced to join the humans and travel with them, the unicorn’s loathing of them will be expected. As long as the unicorn doesn’t become actively unlikable (for instance, by killing a human child who’s left unattended), its misanthropy will be accepted as part of its personality. Misogyny, greed and superiority are also more excusable if they’re integral parts of a culture and if the character has something positive to balance them out.

2. The character has a good reason to behave in this way.

Unicorns can’t hate humans just-because. Even if it’s not revealed at the start, there has to be a reason for this, and if it’s something understandable – for instance, humans wiped out an entire unicorn tribe two hundred years ago – the unicorn can still be sympathetic. The Glores in my manuscript Redemption are all petty thieves, but they steal because of their liking for pretty or unusual things, and because they’re the poorest, most downtrodden race in the land. If they stole out of malice, they would be much more difficult to make sympathetic.

Likeable rogues such as the Saint get away with crimes because these are often committed to help others. The motivation is a major positive, and it helps that such rogues are often competent, insouciant and amusing as well.

3. The character does not try to excuse his flaws to the reader.

In Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes, the heroine robs people but justifies it because these people are rich, unpleasant and probably insured for the losses. That made her very difficult for me to like. If a heroine steals to survive, I’m on her side. If she steals even after her life improves, because she’s now accustomed to doing so, I could still sympathize. But if she calls her victims stupid and greedy for being deceived by her swindles, or if she pats herself on the back for her moral superiority in giving a portion of her ill-gotten gains to charity, I’m gone. I prefer honest indifference to a holier-than-thou attitude.

The bottom line is that the protagonist’s personality and backstory should be enough to justify their behavior to the readers. If the narrative or the protagonist’s internal monologue is doing this instead – and doing it explicitly – something’s wrong.

4. The character is treated appropriately for mistakes.

When Glores get caught stealing, they’re sent to forced labor camps. Sometimes they’re sent there even before they’re caught, since everyone knows they’re thieves. It’s better for readers to feel characters are being treated harshly and unfairly than for readers to think that characters can get away with anything, since the author loves them too much to let them face any realistic consequences of their actions. Readers are far more likely to sympathize with underdogs than with Author’s Darlings.

One way to allow the characters to escape unscathed is to show that the targets of their actions were extremely unsympathetic or deserved whatever the characters did. Be careful with this, though, since readers don’t want to feel that the author is trying to make them dislike someone.

It’s interesting, too, that characters can still be likeable even if they deliberately hurt (frame, ruin, rape, cripple) someone sympathetic – provided that they are punished for this and they feel genuinely sorry for it. In Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, a young bank executive steals six grand and pins the theft on a teller who happens to be a struggling single mother. He’s found out and sent to jail, where he’s gang-raped and becomes suicidal; the only thing that stops him killing himself is his hope that he can some day apologize to the teller for what he did. I couldn’t help starting to like him. And Hailey never makes it easy for the ex-con to reintegrate himself into society, which made it all the easier to feel sorry for him.

If the crime is a very bad one, it may be a good idea to first present the protagonist as a character, showing what’s good about him and what he’s suffered – though not saying exactly what he’s done. Once the readers have grown to like him, the crime can be revealed, since the positive first impression should still be uppermost. Provided the protagonist never excuses or justifies himself, he’ll come off as very realistic and still sympathetic. We all know what it’s like to do something wrong and have to face up to the consequences. And hopefully, like these characters, we’ve struggled back up after each fall.


Unknown said...

(I found you from Query Shark. Hello!)

I found this post very interesting. I struggle with "unlikeable" characters. This post made me think of the Illearth Chronicles by Stephen Donaldson. I know the author intended him to be an "anti-hero," but still...he was too unlikeable. He had a reason for being bad, but it wasn't a good enough reason for me!

Marian Perera said...

Hi, beth. Thanks for commenting!

Spoilers ahead for the Donaldson book...

Thomas Covenant is a great example of a character whose flaws just don't work for a lot of people. My own take on it is that rape - especially of a young, vulnerable girl who trusts and looks up to the man - is such a vile crime that once a character does it, he'll have to spend a lot of time paying for it if he wants to have a chance at reader sympathy. I couldn't read Lord Foul's Bane past the rape scene, especially given that the other characters still looked up to Covenant after it.

The leprosy might have helped, since I like diseases (well, learning about them) and realistic conditions like that. But Covenant was too bitter and self-pitying. On top of it, his immediate reaction to the rape was shock... that he had the use of certain body parts again. I'm really pleased for you, man. Maybe if a reader can get past that scene, the worldbuilding and the plot work. I couldn't, and don't think I'll try again.