Thursday 24 January 2013

Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts

There’s something very attractive about the outsider character. Being rejected and having to strike out alone feels quite romantic.

The main things to remember when developing this sort of character is to show how happy everyone inside the group is (even if they’re just kidding themselves), and to demonstrate clearly that the character is not welcome.

Humans, as a whole, crave belonging. We want to be accepted into the group, to obtain status and be listened to.

People who reject the mainstream and become Goths or nerds or B-boys are still looking for a gang to call their own. We form societies both in small, familial group, and large metropolises. 

And each of these has its rules and hierarchies and cliques, even the ones that claim they don’t.

It hits deep when membership to any sort of club is either rejected or revoked.

When a character is not allowed into a group, or is thrown out, the reader understands on a basic level that this is a loss. There is strength in numbers, and, by the same logic, weakness in being alone. That positioning of an outcast as an underdog is where the sympathy comes from.

Whether it’s the student who sits alone at lunch, the woman who isn’t married at 40, or the patriot who fails to pass the army physical. The group they don’t belong to doesn’t need to be clearly defined like a country club, it can be much broader or much narrower than that. 

The important thing is they want to belong, and they can't. 

A character who is dismissive of the group and doesn’t want to join is less effective. Even if the group is full of horrible people, the character has to want to join for his rejection to have full impact on the reader.

You can have the loner character who isn’t interested in joining any club, the Clint Eastwood-style drifter who is much cooler than everyone else and people eventually leave the group to join him, but this is more of a wish fulfillment sort of deal, and in most cases slips into a Mary Sue kind of perfect character. There is no sense of the underdog here. 

You might want to be like him, but he’s never really threatened or in danger for you to feel much in the way of emotional attachment. The same goes for those who have the look of the outcast, but have a gang who all dress the same or have the same interests. The fact they are in conflict with another group (e.g. geeks vs jocks) doesn't make them outcasts, it just makes them rivals. 

Key factors that will help the reader empathise are the character really wanting to join, and the rejection being unfair and unwarranted. 

If the reason for his exclusion is beyond his control—he's not from the right background, he has a handicap, he got passed over in favour of someone better connected—the sympathy will be that much stronger for him. 

Rejection of this sort can also be used to establish an antagonist’s motivation for wanting revenge. 

Any time a guy isn’t invited out for drinks with his co-workers, a girl isn’t asked to be a bridesmaid or a kid isn’t picked for a football team, the reader will feel a pang of sympathy. But it also works for someone not being believed when they’re telling the truth, or when someone isn’t given a chance to prove themselves. 

Being judged without proof is seen as unfair. Not being valued or treated the same as others is a good way to hook the reader’s sympathies. It’s manipulative and sneaky, but very effective. Just make sure you show how much they want it, and also show the moment of rejection in its full agonising glory.

Having no friends and no one to back you up or believe in you, is heartbreaking. But not as heartbreaking as having friends who turn on you, as discussed in the next post—Sympathetic Characters Part 5: Betrayal

If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Other posts in the series can be found here:

Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger

Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering

Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Souls

And don't forget to check out the latest posts from other top bloggers at The Funnily Enough


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The character could ACT like he doesn't want to belong but secretly does. Even if perhaps he doesn't realize that yet.

Sarah Allen said...

My first thought with this was Benjamin Linus from LOST. The show really cool, but Linus himself was possibly the greatest television character ever created. Or at least among them.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

If only this attraction carried over into real life. People love reading about the outcast, but in real life, the outcast normally gets bullied and ends up with no friends and being called weird.

mooderino said...

@Alex - well, if you're going to be all subtle and clever about it...

@Sarah - Turns out life on a tropical island, not so great.

@Michael - Very true.

Julia Hones said...

The woman who isn't married at forty? Mmmmmm. So women want to be married and men like to be single? Let's change the plot.

mooderino said...

@Julia - It only matters that the character can't be a member, the type of club is up to the writer. A forty year old man whose proposal gets turned down would work just as well, I'm sure.

Jack Dowden said...

When I first read the word, "Outcasts," I thought you'd be dealing with anti-heroes. I was happily surprised. Too often you'll see characters like you described above, loners for the sake of being loners. You're right, it's wish fulfillment. There's nothing wrong with it, but it doesn't feel authentic. Folks need to cut the anti-hero bullshit. People want to belong, even if they say they don't. Humans are social. Even hermits get lonely after a while. JAWSOME post.

Elise Fallson said...

I have examples of this in my current wip. A member of a group cuts off all ties to live alone... ends up going back... he needs them...he's one of them...or something to that effect.

Tammy Theriault said...

These are fun people to embellish on...I have s few I keep in my pocket,.they need writer love too!

mooderino said...

@Jack - Jank you very much.

@Ellise - People, i think we can all agree, are annoying but necessary.

@Tammy - We all need writer love!

Rusty Carl said...

I didn't realize I'd missed all your character posts before this one... great advice as always. I'll go back and read the others.

Beverly Diehl said...

The Ugly Duckling.

The biggest way of being an outcast is being emotionally rejected by one or both parents. "Mother liked you best!" If a character has THAT is his/her backstory, then any subsequent rejections or exclusions will reverberate that much stronger.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I am enjoying these sympathetic characters posts, Moody. Lots of things that are turning out to be an eye-opener for me. Super info. Thanks for sharing.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Very informative, Mood.

I LOVE this kind of sympathy. I have this featured in my first novel. It is very difficult for a child especially to deal with rejection and is outcasted for no apparent reason except that they have been targeted by the class bully and the "ranks" follow suit.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - there will of course be a quiz at the end of the semester.

@Beverly - parents, pretty much the root of all problems (well, mine are).

@Rachna - you're very welcome

@Michael - I think we're all a bit susceptible to going along with the crowd and being thankful we aren't the ones being picked on.

Golden Eagle said...

Just reading about your description of outcasts is making me sad. They make for great characters, though.

mooderino said...

@Golden - don't worry, they always win through in the end. In stories, anyway.

Michael Seese said...

"The main things to remember when developing this sort of character is to show how happy everyone inside the group is (even if they’re just kidding themselves)..."

This, I thought, was a really great point.

mooderino said...

@Michael - thanks.

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