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Viral
10-22-2008, 05:31 AM
I'm currently having an argument with someone about sympathetic characters. She believes her villain does not need to be sympathetic with the reader. This villain is the POV character, so we do predominately see through his eyes. The character basically thinks he's amazing, shamelessly criticizes others, and acts vain and high and mighty... pretty much the entire time. It's extremely grating to read, yet she loves this character. She said others have not liked the character, and wanted to know why.

I've been trying to explain she should look deep in his character and find what makes him a whole, round character, and what features about him would be sympathetic to the reader (his fears, insecurities, positive points, etc.). But she refuses to do this and wants to keep him as someone who always thinks himself amazing, is vain, critical, etc. Her argument is that my suggestions are "not what he would do" and that she doesn't want to change his character.

I'm having a lot of difficulty putting into words why characters (even villains) should be sympathetic to the reader. Could any of you guys help?

JoNightshade
10-22-2008, 05:38 AM
Try telling her she doesn't have to change the character at all. It's possible for him to behave exactly the same as he does now. Creating sympathy doesn't mean making the character something different; it means finding a way to convince the reader that in spite of his faults, he's worth liking. I think to do that, your friend needs to figure out why SHE likes her character. I mean, she DOES, so there has to be SOMETHING sympathetic about him (or your friend is psychotic). What is it that makes her love him in spite of all of his faults? Answer that, and then convey it to the reader.

Example: Darth Vader. In Episode IV, his first appearance, he isn't sympathetic at all. WHY is he so frickin' awesome? Why do we secretly kind of root for him? Well, maybe it's because he's so damn good at what he does (being scary). Maybe it's because he doesn't hesitate to kill anyone who gets in his way - he's impressively merciless. Maybe it's because we're dying to know what's behind the mask.

The fact that your friend's character is a POV character makes things a little different, because we get to see him from the inside out. But the same basic principles apply.

CheshireCat
10-22-2008, 05:39 AM
The villain doesn't have to be sympathetic to the reader.

As long as there's another character, a protagonist, who is.

That said, a character with only negative traits is as boring and uninteresting as one with only positive traits.

Does your friend want to sell her story?

That's the question she needs to answer.

Viral
10-22-2008, 05:42 AM
This is basically what I've gotten so far:

She likes him because he's evil, and no one has to sympathize with him because "he doesn't care, and it isn't his character."

(He's the only POV character.)

wordmonkey
10-22-2008, 06:08 AM
House.

Not at all sympathetic on almost every level. Sometimes he is down right repulsive.

But we've been given enough to understand (not excuse him).

I would say you don't need to have the character sympathetic, but I wanna why he is like he is, especially if he actively goes against acceptable norms of behavior.

Danger Jane
10-22-2008, 06:51 AM
If the villain is extremely interesting and compelling, you don't need him to be sympathetic (no requisite tragic history). I'm hard-pressed to think of a story with no sympathetic anti-hero, at the very least, however. Either we identify strongly with the antagonist to the villainous narrator, or at least that antagonist is less (or maybe much, much MORE) evil/despicable than the narrator. Someone important MUST have principles, or it's gonna be very, very hard for most people to connect to the story, because they'll just hate everyone too much to continue.

Mad Queen
10-22-2008, 07:23 AM
There are lots of evil characters in literature, cinema and TV. What makes this character special? In my opinion, being sympathetic is only one of the ways a character can be interesting. There are others and she should find one of them. Here are two famous books/movies with unsympathetic characters as an examples: American Psycho and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Viral, I think you shouldn't insist that the character must be sympathetic, unless you are sure you only like sympathetic characters--I know many people don't enjoy reading about the 'dark side'. Maybe it's not a book you will like, but others will.

maestrowork
10-22-2008, 07:32 AM
A character has to be interesting -- one who acts instead of acted upon. It doesn't have to be sympathetic. A 3-dimensional character is more human, and thus relatable, but it's not the same as "sympathetic."

virtue_summer
10-22-2008, 08:36 AM
I'm going to both agree and disagree with others here. It's true that a villian especially doesn't have to be sympathetic, but that's assuming a natural villian: In other words, the character standing in the way of the protagonist. If the story is from the villian's POV entirely then the villian is the protagonist. A protagonist does have to be sympathetic (not likeable, but understandable). Otherwise the story has no tension, no sense of suspense. Why? Because the only character we're really getting to know is one that we don't give a damn about. So why should we care what happens to them? It might be possible to balance an unsympathetic villian's POV with that of a sympathetic protagonist, playing up the evil of the villian so that the reader fears more for the protagonist, but if the villian is the only viewpoint character they had better be sympathetic in some way and not a shallow stereotype of evil incarnate.

Mad Queen
10-22-2008, 09:13 AM
If you consider 'sympathetic' a synonym of 'understandable', the opposite of shallow stereotype of evil incarnate, then I agree. Any shallow stereotypes, not just of evil incarnate, are usually uninteresting.

EriRae
10-22-2008, 09:31 AM
Every villain believes he's doing the right thing. Every story has two sides. The reader needs to be able to understand the villain's point of view, especially since that is the focus of the story. Tell her when/where you the reader don't understand why he does what he does. Or maybe she needs more mystery at first, to make the reader think there's a possibility that he's a nice guy, only to find out later that he's a self-centered jerk.

I've read novels where I didn't like the main character (American Psycho, Fight Club, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) but there was always the possibility that the MC would get caught, change his mind, or even die from his foolish ways. That kept me reading. Is the plot enough to pull the reader along without liking the character?

tehuti88
10-22-2008, 06:18 PM
This is basically what I've gotten so far:

She likes him because he's evil, and no one has to sympathize with him because "he doesn't care, and it isn't his character."

(He's the only POV character.)

She seems to be misunderstanding the point of making a character sympathetic. It has nothing to do with what the character wants or does. It has to do with what the reader wants or thinks, and how the writer presents that character. Sure, the really bad guy is full of himself and thinks he's perfect and would never, ever stop to admit to a fault. He doesn't have to. But the WRITER has to find a way to make his vanity and self-centeredness and whatnot interesting to the reader so that either the reader understands where this guy is coming from, or likes him well enough to put up with it all. Someone mentioned House; he's a good example of such a character. See how the show writers make him completely obnoxious (the way he uses poor Wilson I always want to strangle him) yet understandable and likable to viewers.

The character may not care if anybody sympathizes with him, yes. But if the writer wants the readers to keep reading, then she's going to have to think about what THEY care about. This writer is mixing up what the character wants with what readers want. It's two different things.

I think JoNightshade said it all pretty well.

Alpha Echo
10-22-2008, 06:25 PM
House.

Not at all sympathetic on almost every level. Sometimes he is down right repulsive.

But we've been given enough to understand (not excuse him).

I would say you don't need to have the character sympathetic, but I wanna why he is like he is, especially if he actively goes against acceptable norms of behavior.

GREAT example. I LOVE House. I think he's horrible and miserable, and I can't believe he says and does the things he says and does sometimes. But for some reason, I love him. We've been given a glimpse into his heart and soul - that he really does care for people sometimes, that he has his own fears, that some of his memories haunt him. So we're pulling for him.

Blake M. Petit
10-22-2008, 06:25 PM
Personally, I need someone in the story to be sympathetic, or I don't enjoy it. I need someone to root for, someone to care about. Otherwise, succeed or fail, why does it matter?

I don't think it's 100 percent necessary for the POV character specifically to be sympathetic, but if he isn't, the story is a much harder sell.

Has your friend read any of the Dexter novels, or even watched the TV show? That may help her out.

DeleyanLee
10-22-2008, 06:37 PM
Why should characters be sympathetic?

Because the characters, particularly the POV chars, are the reader's only vehicle into the story.

An unsympathic, even nasty, POV character is like asking someone to make a cross-country journey in a car with wooden seats, sealed windows and no suspension, radio or no heat/air-conditioning. As much as you might want to take the journey (be interested in the story), your means of getting there could be simply intolerable.

Does that mean that the characters have to be nice, or sweet or any of those traditionally good things? Of course not. But it does mean that there should be something within that character that readers can easily identify with (definition of sympathy) so it's easier to crawl into the vehicle provided, even if looks a little dirty and junky, and get comfortable before heading into the long trip of the story.

maestrowork
10-22-2008, 06:45 PM
Does that mean that the characters have to be nice, or sweet or any of those traditionally good things? Of course not. But it does mean that there should be something within that character that readers can easily identify with (definition of sympathy) so it's easier to crawl into the vehicle provided, even if looks a little dirty and junky, and get comfortable before heading into the long trip of the story.

Nice, sweet characters tend to be boring. ;) The nasty ones are the ones we remember... because they're interesting.

That said, I do think there has to be something we can identify with the character, even if it's nasty. Why do we like Scrooge? He's a nasty old man. Why are we fascinated by Hannibal Lecter? There's just something identifiable about them. I wouldn't want to sit in a car with Lecter -- he makes my skin crawl -- but he certainly is fascinating and interesting to follow... from a distance.

I think part of it has to do with how intimate the narration is as well. American Psycho, for example, was in 1st person -- so it makes for a very uneasy read. Still, we get to go inside the head of a very unlikable character, and that can be extremely fascinating. Voice also has something to do with it.

virtue_summer
10-22-2008, 09:15 PM
Why do we like Scrooge? He's a nasty old man. Why are we fascinated by Hannibal Lecter? There's just something identifiable about them. I wouldn't want to sit in a car with Lecter -- he makes my skin crawl -- but he certainly is fascinating and interesting to follow... from a distance.

Scrooge isn't that bad and his main bad quality (greed) is one we can pretty much all relate to because most of us have felt it at some moment in time. Also, remember that he becomes more sympathetic and more likeable as the story goes on.

As for Hannibal Lector, he was a psychiatrist or something right? He understood people and he was good at bonding with them and although I've only seen the movie Silence of the Lambs I looked up the books and it doesn't come across, at least in the first couple, that he's the only POV character and in fact comes across the opposite way. And by showing him from the point of view of others who are drawn to him, to see parts of themselves in him or to be charmed by him or to find him understanding things about themselves that even they didn't, that gives the reader or viewer glimpses into the more sympathetic sides of his character. And I'd actually say that's what makes him creep us out even more.

veinglory
10-22-2008, 09:18 PM
I think some people may be missing that this 'villain' is the protagonist--the only point-of-view character in the story.

(i.e. he isn't 'the villain at all--he is just a very unusual hero).

In which case he has to be engaging in some way, and being sympathetic is the most practical way to acheive that.

Dale Emery
10-22-2008, 10:28 PM
I'm having a lot of difficulty putting into words why characters (even villains) should be sympathetic to the reader. Could any of you guys help?

In my experience, should is almost always an obstacle to persuasion. "You should" implies that you know better than the author what will best achieve the author's intentions. That sometimes works if you know the author's intentions (and by know, I mean that the author explicitly agrees with your description of her intentions). But otherwise should usually leads the listener to reject both your advice and the unstated standard to which it refers.

Consider instead describing what effect the lack of sympathy had on you. You are the world's leading expert on that, and that's often easier to hear than "you should." If she is able to receive that, you may be able to talk about what other authors have done that worked better for you (again, something that you can talk about with absolute authority).

Dale

josephwise
10-22-2008, 11:33 PM
Why should a reader care about what happens in the book?

Mad Queen
10-22-2008, 11:59 PM
Consider instead describing what effect the lack of sympathy had on you.
Consider instead describing what effect the character in general had on you. This will also help if you think the lack of sympathy is the problem, but it actually isn't.

selkn.asrai
11-10-2008, 06:26 PM
I agree with the above posters, you don't necessarily need sympathy. But you do need a dimensional and preferably dynamic character.

From what it sounds like (coz I obviously haven't read it), your friend has a static, single-faceted, cardboard-display bad guy whose every sentence begins and/or ends with "Muah ha HA" while he strokes his greasy moustache. Mayhaps he even has long-winded, melodramatic, unrealistic monologues, sticks babies with spikes, and feeds arsenic to puppies for funsies. I have a friend with similar villains. If they're not shining beacons of virtue, they're oh-so-evil-and-loving-it. And they're grating and laughable. And dull.

If the above applies to your friend's villain, maybe you need to tell her that her beloved character is a boring stereotype.

Claudia Gray
11-10-2008, 07:37 PM
It depends on the kind of story she's telling. If this is a story with plenty of nuanced, multidimensional characters and one cardboard villain, that doesn't work; she's going to need her villain to be as fleshed out as everyone else, with realistic motives that make him/her believable if not sympathetic.

OTOH, I think there is a place for pure evil in stories that have a sort of mythological scope or are about the unknowability of evil. On the mythological side, I always point to Lord of the Rings: Nobody wants to hear that Sauron had a bad childhood. That's a force of pure primal evil, and explaining that away would diminish it immensely. On the unknowability of evil, I look at Silence of the Lambs -- not so much Hannibal Lecter, who gains some reader sympathy with his intelligence, wit and appreciation of Clarice Starling, but instead Buffalo Bill. We learn a lot about why Jame Gumb's past and his psychology, and get a lot of detail about his life, but he is never at any point remotely sympathetic. He is very, very detailed but not really well-rounded in terms of giving him relatable qualities. This is part of the challenge for Clarice, who wants to analyze and understand evil; she has to trap someone she can never fully understand.