Friday, 22 April 2011

S is for Sympathy for the Devil

Make your MC likeable, right? Give the reader something to relate to. Give the bad boy a soft spot. Show he has his heart in the right place. A moment of selflessness. Save a cat. Rescue a turtle. Lend money to a chimp.

Which would you rather read about, a dull, tedious, sympathetic character, or an exciting, daring, son of a bitch?

Obviously you don’t have to make it one or the other, but I would suggest when choosing between interesting and  sympathetic, the primary area of concern is how entertaining your character is, not how much they give to charitable causes.


Making a character likeable or sympathetic will certainly make him easier for the audience to relate to and connect with. It is a very direct way to win them over, and quite simplistic, which is fine if that’s what you’re after. But not every novelist is aiming for a Dan Brown style blockbuster, no more than every screenwriter is aiming to write a Michael Bay summer tentpole movie. However, most instructional books are aimed at those markets. They’re about how to create the biggest impact in the shortest time in order to make the most money. And if you want to attract the attention of an agent from deep in the slushpile that is definitely a very good way to do it. Reducing concepts to their simplest form makes them easy to understand and easy to sell, but it also makes them unsophisticated and obvious.

If Aladdin steals an apple, evades the city guards, run riot through the market and escapes, and the writer wants people to like this thief so just as Aladdin is about to devour his ill gotten fruit he sees a couple of starving street urchins and gives them his food, then we like this rogue, right?

The problem is that it is corny. It’s obvious what’s going on. If the magic trick is performed brilliantly but I can see the wires holding the magician in mid-air, it’s done. I don’t care how impressive the ‘Ta dah!’ is, I’m not buying it.

I know that many people won’t read a story if they don’t like the main character. Lots of people insist on a happy ending at the movies. But there’s a reason why the term ‘Hollywood Ending’ is considered pejorative. Simple and familiar sells, no dount. Soap operas get watched by millions. Cheesy romance novels sell by the bucket-load.  If a comedian drops his pants and has humorous boxer shorts on, he will get a big laugh.

Playing to the gallery is the best chance of success. And when it works, it works big.

Ignatius J. Reilly is the main character in  A Confederacy of Dunces. He is thoroughly unlikeable with no redeeming features. He is hilarious but nobody wanted to publish the book and the author committed suicide. His mother finally got someone to read it and it was published posthumously, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Everything they say about it being hard to get an unlikeable character into print is true. Lots of people still don’t like Confederacy even after it became an acclaimed classic. But a lot of people do.

In The Silence of the Lambs (book or film, they’re very similar) the standout character isn’t the sympathetic, clever and heroic FBI agent Clarice Starling, it’s the devious, evil, psycho Hannibal Lecter. Everything about him is repugnant and yet he’s the one people clamour for more of.  Why?

When they first meet, Clarice approaches Lecter’s cell and another inmate calls her a cunt and throws a handful of semen at her (you have to admire his ardour). The next visit that inmate is dead. Lecter talked him into killing himself. I could force that into a Save the Cat style paradigm. Lecter’s warped sense of chivalry is in effect protecting Clarice’s honour and punishing the impolite behaviour of a brute. But, really? Does that win your sympathy?

What Lecter does is interesting. It’s impressive. It’s insane. And it’s darkly comic. But sympathetic? Likeable? Even if you view it as a man with his own moral code and principles that isn’t particularly admirable. How many politicians have you seen with strongly held beliefs that border on stupid? Feel any admiration for them?

Dark, unpleasant, repulsive characters litter books and movies. Not just villains. Dirty Harry may hurt bad guys, but he also hurts bystanders and buildings and everything in between (for the kids out there, think Batman without the wonderful toys). I could come up with examples all day.

What sells these characters is what they do and how they do it. Defying convention, coming up with daring ideas and using outrageous plans to get what they want. If we feel connected or sympathetic towards them, it’s after we’ve already been won over. And they don’t have to feed any orphans to do it, it’s irresistible just by their very nature. Audacity, inventiveness, a lexicon of swears to make your toes curl — these sorts of things have their own charm.

Most people read for escapism. They want the good guy in white and the bad guy beaten with style. Business people want to make money. It’s obvious how to maximise your chance to be the next big thing. And that’s fine. But save a little room in your hearts for an interesting character who behaves badly, he might be one of mine.

24 comments:

McKenzie McCann said...

A MC doesn't have to be 'good' to be likable. There are some characters I read about that make me want to smash my head against the wall. Yet I like reading about them. As long as I care about the character, then it's fine.

Craig Edwards said...

I read for escapism, but I don't mind characters who are in touch with their dark side, shall we say. I haven't started yet, but a couple of the Dexter novels are sitting on the shelf nearby - I'm quite looking forward to reading them - but I know I'll be spending time with an sociopathic killer. As Kirk once said: "sounds like fun!" Very valid points, well worth solid consideration. Well done, sir.

Josh Hoyt said...

Hmmm This is an excellent point. I have never thought about it but you are right. I think it is so important that we leave room for the different MC the one that isn't all shiny. The thief that steels the apple and eats it to.

J. D. Brown said...

I agree, I love the anti-hero the rogues and the villains way more than the stereotypical "good guy".

But McKenzie's comment is also correct. Characters do not have to be "good" to be sympathetic, likeable, or even memorable. A well-done character is one who's personality is as layered as a real person. A personality that falls flat will be lame no matter how charitable or inherently evil the character is. Motive is always more important than actions.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love the 'bad' characters too. Another blogger posted about 'I Am Not A Serial Killer' (a book I really like) and the protagonist is likeable despite wanting to cut people. In 'The Book Thief', I fell in love with Death.

Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Her highness, Samantha Vérant said...

Nabokov's Lolita is another fine example. I'm currently working on a WIP where one of the antagonists is dark (but not repulsive) and extremely untrustworthy. Great post, mooderino.

Madeleine said...

Excellent post. Yes very true, the MC must be interesting because nice characters can be inspid if not done well :O)

Clarissa Draper said...

Yes it's true. we must try to make all our characters unique but also give them something readers will relate to. Loved it!

Gail M Baugniet said...

You've given us a thought-provoking post for S-day. Some of your comments also brought a smile to my face. I like the bad guy in a story to be bad (Michael Connelly's bad guys bad). The requisite redeeming quality is fine, as long as it's not overdone, but not enough to blur the line between black and white.

Paula Martin said...

Must confess I don't really like the bad guys, either in books or movies.

Rachael Harrie said...

Love it! My (really bad) MC has a wicked sense of humor - am having so much fun writing her ;)

Hugs,

Rach

Jen Daiker said...

Super cute blog!!! Love it here already!!

I love creating such magical and interesting characters.

Reading Stephen King's On Writing taught me about his character Carrie, a very well known character. He had hated her guts, his wife told him to keep writing and that's when he discovered you could pity the character and the book would still be effective. Now it's a VERY WELL KNOWN book and a MOVIE all thanks to him deciding you didn't have to love your character, you just had to make the audience feel SOMETHING.

I like to love my characters... for me the more quirky they are, the better they are.

Langley said...

I could probably get a bit darker with my MC. This has prompted some serious thought, thanks!

I’m A-Z Blogging on Langley Writes about Writing and Langley’s Rich and Random Life

Lydia K said...

Very true! I'm reading the Hating Game right now, and the MC is snarky and independent--definitely not perfect or saving kitties. And I love her for it!

Margo Berendsen said...

Wonderful examples. There is something eerily appealing about Hannibal Lector and the others mentioned. One way they made Hannibal "sympathetic" in the movie (haven't read the book) was by making his zoo-keeper, as I like to call him, a real A$$. But it was his cleverness, his interest in Clarice's psyche, and his respect for her (he wouldn't hunt her down - I least I think - I never saw the sequel) that made him one of the most memorable cannibals, er villians, in fictional history.

Shallow exciting stuff can make a lot of money, but it's not memorable.

Dawn Embers said...

Indeed, the characters don't have to be likable to be interesting. On the other hand, the "bad boy" in young adult novels, particularly the paranormal ones with a romance subplot/plot annoys me. Instead of adding depth, it makes the characters (main and sub) feel underdeveloped to me. Plus, I'd like to see the nice guy win in a triangle over a bad boy. But the nice guy needs something to make him interesting too.

Ellie said...

I agree. Characters can be bad and still likeable!

Ellie Garratt

Word Nerd said...

YES! I like nice as much as anyone, but while simple and sweet are great in real life, the whole point of reading a book or watching a movie is to have a little adventure.

My “S” Post
My “R” Post

Claire Goverts said...

Interesting post, I enjoyed reading. And ya, throwing a random act of kindness in a story simply to make a character likeable is a bit much. For me I like to read about characters that have something going for them to make them interesting. It doesn't matter if they are "good" or "bad". It throws me out of a book when a character does something against their character, or the author skips over a bunch of character development and suddenly it feels like I'm reading about a different character.

Sue H said...

It's nice, once in a while, to come across a character who isn't necessarily redeemable!

SueH I refuse to go quietly!

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments. I thought this post might be a little contentious but actually pretty much everyone took a very reasonable position on it. I'll have to try and come up with something more devisive.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I still have to like the character to read the book, but she doesn't necessarily have to be likeable. Some of my favorite books have a less than sympathetic characters, but you don't realize she is that way until later in the book when you see how much she's grown as an individual. It's hard to explain. And you don't read the same books as me, so I can't give you an example. ;)

Beverly Diehl said...

My only contention on this piece is with you tying likeable/sympathetic characters and Dan Brown into the same post, as if he does that. His novels are blockbusters because of plot and pacing gimmicks and good PR, not because he writes anyone a reader can "hook into."

Then again, perhaps I judge prematurely, since after I struggled through Da Vinci Code you couldn't persuade me to read another of his books at gunpoint.

Seriously, without checking, name three interesting things that come to mind about any one of his characters (his characters, not Tom Hanks.) Waiting. Buehler, Buehler? While as you rightly point out, Hannibal Lecter is creepily fascinating.

Dawn M. Hamsher said...

Yes, not every person is completely evil. People are complex and readers want to see that, not some flat Devil Dude with horns.

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