PDA

View Full Version : Methods for creating a likeable character who commits "unlikable" acts?



WackAMole
12-14-2006, 03:50 AM
Im working on editing a short that I just completed. The character commits some pretty atrocous crimes and I am concerned that I am not generating enough sympathy to make the reader want to follow this crazy woman on her journey.

Is it best to approach subjects like murder and revenge with dark humor? How can you build this character into someone with enough depth that the reader sees through the acts and empathizes with them?

I probably should post a snippet in the post your work part of the forums so its clearer (Im chicken hehe), but id like to start by asking about development patterns to create a likeable character who does dirty deeds.

Any tips?

alices
12-14-2006, 03:55 AM
It would be easier if you would post a snippet - don't be a chicken! :)

Is this crazy woman funny, cute, snarky?

PeeDee
12-14-2006, 04:00 AM
You can go all sorts of routs. For example, in movie's like "hang 'em high," we love Clint Eastwood's character, even though he's little better than those he's fighting against. that's the cool factor. we like him because we do.

Then, there's characters like the Nurse in Stephen King's "Misery," (whose name I am woefully forgetting now) with whom we do sympathise, because she may be crazy, but in that craziness, she's a sad and scared person, and we feel sorry for her.

(Well. I did.)

Then there's Greg House, on TV, who is a jackass...but we feel bad for him and we love him nonetheless.

so yes, I think it's doable. It just has to be considered first.

Elodie-Caroline
12-14-2006, 04:01 AM
Hi,
Just because person does some bad things, that doesn't automatically make them a bad person. Your character only needs you to show her humane and good side.
I have a friend who killed somebody back in the 1970s, she spent time in prison for it; but I know her background and why she ended up on the wild side. However, when she came out of prison, she got married and then nursed her husband's son, whom was sick with Aids, until he died, she also nursed her own mother, whom was dying of cancer, until she died too... so this woman isn't all bad.

Ellie

Bubastes
12-14-2006, 04:12 AM
My favorite example is Hannibal Lecter. He's a monster, but he's also intelligent, refined, and charismatic. Those positive qualities make people empathize with him despite his, um, unique tastes. I think I read in Robert McKee's "Story" that he's the type of character that makes you say, "Hmm, yes, I know he's a cannibal, but if I were a cannibal, I'd want to be like him." (paraphrased)

Rolling Thunder
12-14-2006, 04:15 AM
If your character wasn't a woman, Wack, I'd say you were describing Pete.:D

**runs from thread**

PeeDee
12-14-2006, 04:19 AM
Keep talking, bucko. I'm just over here.

Sharpening my knives.

Keeeeeeep talking...

WackAMole
12-14-2006, 04:23 AM
Hi,
Just because person does some bad things, that doesn't automatically make them a bad person. Your character only needs you to show her humane and good side.
I have a friend who killed somebody back in the 1970s, she spent time in prison for it; but I know her background and why she ended up on the wild side. However, when she came out of prison, she got married and then nursed her husband's son, whom was sick with Aids, until he died, she also nursed her own mother, whom was dying of cancer, until she died too... so this woman isn't all bad.

Ellie

This is the principle upon which this character is built. Shes an otherwise normal woman, who just cracks basically. I think I've done okay by her but I havent let anyone read it because I wrote it one night when I was really pissed at my ex as a way to vent so it feels a bit personal. At the same time, I was so shocked that I wrote it when I went back to it a few months later. It was written in anger, but it turned out pretty good for a piece with absolutely no editing whatsoever. So i got this idea to start working on it to possibly build it into novella size. I got concerned as I was thinking about doing this because of the acts the character commits and not wanting the reader to lose sympathy for her along the way.

There is redemption at the end of the story, but i am worried about losing the reader before I get there.

ChaosTitan
12-14-2006, 04:24 AM
but id like to start by asking about development patterns to create a likeable character who does dirty deeds.

Any tips?

Have them rescue a puppy before it gets struck by a car. Figuratively speaking, of course.

I like PeeDee's example of Annie Wilkes from "Misery." She is insane and does terrible things to Paul, but she also saves his life. She nurses him back to health. She lost people close to her, and lives alone with a pot-belly pig. Then again, she's not the hero of the story.

But ani-heroes seem to be rising in popularity. Take Dr. House. He's an ass, but he is also brilliant and has human flaws.

Show us your heroine's flaws so that we can understand why she's doing these horrible things.

PeeDee
12-14-2006, 04:25 AM
I don't know that we actually sympathized with Darth Vader at all, until towards the end when we realized that he was trapped, and then he redeemed himself.

PeeDee
12-14-2006, 04:25 AM
Annie Wilkes! THAT'S her name! *whew*

My head got stuck on "Deloros Clairborne" which I KNEW wasn't the right person....!

ChaosTitan
12-14-2006, 04:27 AM
Annie Wilkes! THAT'S her name! *whew*

My head got stuck on "Deloros Clairborne" which I KNEW wasn't the right person....!

Same actress.

You're forgiven. ;)

WackAMole
12-14-2006, 04:28 AM
Same actress.

You're forgiven. ;)

Kathy Bates is her real name. The best most under-rated actress in US history

PeeDee
12-14-2006, 04:29 AM
Kathy Bates is her real name. The best most under-rated actress in US history

I agree. She plays psycho nurse better than anyone. Her Annie Wilkes genuinely bothered me when I saw it for the first time, in a way that the novel version didn't. I genuinely didn't want to be around the movie character. She made me very uncomfortable. I loved it.

Rolling Thunder
12-14-2006, 04:29 AM
I don't know that we actually sympathized with Darth Vader at all, until towards the end when we realized that he was trapped, and then he redeemed himself.

This is true but I think Lucas intended that all along. The same could be said about JKR's character, Snape. She seems to have a plan for him building towards the last book.

WackAMole
12-14-2006, 04:30 AM
Have them rescue a puppy before it gets struck by a car. Figuratively speaking, of course.

I like PeeDee's example of Annie Wilkes from "Misery." She is insane and does terrible things to Paul, but she also saves his life. She nurses him back to health. She lost people close to her, and lives alone with a pot-belly pig. Then again, she's not the hero of the story.

But ani-heroes seem to be rising in popularity. Take Dr. House. He's an ass, but he is also brilliant and has human flaws.

Show us your heroine's flaws so that we can understand why she's doing these horrible things.

Is there a good way for inventing flaws for our characters so that they dont all end up being exactly the same as us?

I know I tend to give my characters the same flaws I have which i am really trying to shy away from. I people watch a lot, i try to focus on people i like and dont like and why i feel the way i do about them, but other than that, im no damn psychologist thats for sure LOL

Rolling Thunder
12-14-2006, 04:34 AM
I know I tend to give my characters the same flaws I have which i am really trying to shy away from. I people watch a lot, i try to focus on people i like and dont like and why i feel the way i do about them, but other than that, im no damn psychologist thats for sure LOL
I think our own flaws are excellent starting points. Twist or bend them as needed to enhance their bad parts. Explore and discover your best attributes to do the opposite. It would make for heartfelt characters which is what we want in the end.

**sigh** I wish I had flaws......

WackAMole
12-14-2006, 04:40 AM
**sigh** I wish I had flaws......

LOL

ChaosTitan
12-14-2006, 04:54 AM
Is there a good way for inventing flaws for our characters so that they dont all end up being exactly the same as us?


Flaws come from any number of things about a person, from their education (or lack thereof), their family background (broke home versus the Walton's), social status, personal fears, tragedies and accidents, and any time they have failed to obtain something they want.

Sit your character down for a conversation. Ask her what she wants most in the world? Figure out something internal that will prevent her from getting it (rather than external, which is what the villian is for).

I'm going to keep using Annie Wilkes for this example: She wants to love Paul Sheldon, and for him to love her. She can't have that because she is mentally unstable and possessive of someone that does not belong to her.

TheIT
12-14-2006, 05:02 AM
Careful, or this thread will start sounding like the Mary Sue thread. ;)

For me to sympathize with a character who is performing questionable acts, I need to see some reason why the character is acting like they do. Does the character have some method to their actions?

Note that being sympathetic to a character is not the same as being interested in the character. I might want to read more just to find out what's going on, but I still might not sympathize with the character if I don't agree with their reasons.

As for other examples, have you seen the movie "Inside Man"?

PeeDee
12-14-2006, 05:04 AM
**sigh** I wish I had flaws......

Just speak through your characters, and they'll do fine in this department.

:D

Rolling Thunder
12-14-2006, 05:32 AM
**eyes Pete's avatar**

Charlatan.

jamiehall
12-14-2006, 09:42 AM
To see how others have done it successfully, try reading any book with a vampire protagonist where the vampire isn't a superhero in vampire clothing (in other words, not presented as a good guy with superpowers derived from the vampire aspects). There are a lot of such novels ever since that genre took off about ten years ago.

dclary
12-14-2006, 10:32 AM
Im working on editing a short that I just completed. The character commits some pretty atrocous crimes and I am concerned that I am not generating enough sympathy to make the reader want to follow this crazy woman on her journey.

Is it best to approach subjects like murder and revenge with dark humor? How can you build this character into someone with enough depth that the reader sees through the acts and empathizes with them?

I probably should post a snippet in the post your work part of the forums so its clearer (Im chicken hehe), but id like to start by asking about development patterns to create a likeable character who does dirty deeds.

Any tips?

In most dark movies like this (Payback, Get Carter), the only way you make a dark hero sympathetic is by making the bad guys even worse.

Alternatively, if you look at the protagonists in Dark City, they were all dark, evil men. But every one of them had a redeeming virtue -- kind of an opposite of Socrates' fatal flaw, I guess.

Birol
12-14-2006, 11:14 AM
All this talking about making the character likable, or sympathetic, what it's really getting at is, we want the reader to relate to the character, to understand where he's coming from. That's where the whole, "Oh, yeah, I've had days where I've felt like chopping up my boss into little pieces and baking into a casserole to feed to my neighbors" comes into play. There are moments, sometimes even whole days, where everyone has felt that secret urge to do someone harm, but we've been taught that really bad things will happen to us if we do, so we step back before crossing that line.

So, when a character does it -- and acts like a frustrated commuter on a Los Angeles highway -- it's a type of wish fulfillment, and the reader can relate to it, even if they are horrified at the same time, because, you know, next time it could be our neighbor who is looking for someone to fill the casserole pan.

aadams73
12-14-2006, 01:54 PM
You might want to read Darkly Dreaming Dexter in which the main character, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer. Jeff Lindsay does an amazing job of making you cheer for the murdering Dexter. So there you have a likable character who in most circumstances would not be likable.

Plus they turned it into a really fab TV show.

jamiehall
12-14-2006, 07:58 PM
In most dark movies like this (Payback, Get Carter), the only way you make a dark hero sympathetic is by making the bad guys even worse.

Alternatively, if you look at the protagonists in Dark City, they were all dark, evil men. But every one of them had a redeeming virtue -- kind of an opposite of Socrates' fatal flaw, I guess.

Did you mean Sin City? In any case, Sin City is a good example of that technique. All but one of the good guy main characters are criminals (ordinary murderers, thieves), but the bad guys are pedophile serial rapists and cannibal serial killers. Plus, all of the good guys genuinely care about those around them.

You also need to be able to distinguish between a good excuse for doing something and a good reason for doing something. Bad guys never have a good enough reason for doing bad things (because if there really was a good enough reason for doing that thing, the bad guys would be good guys caught in a bad situation) but the likable bad guys have a good excuse.

Let me give you an example that I know about from my own life. I have a cousin (one of literally hundreds of cousins I have, so putting this story here is not giving his identity away - yes, one of my grandfathers had at least 21 siblings and one of my grandmothers had 12 siblings).

Anyway, this cousin was dominated by females in a way that few males ever have been. He had two older sisters and a mother. The mother was so abusive that she was, at best, only a few steps away from a brainwasher and she encouraged her daughters to pick on their younger brother. When he was five, he had never said a word and was a very weird, withdrawn, robot-like person. Every time he tried to make a noise or do anything - anything whatsoever - his mother or his sisters would stop him. He was very passive.

He came to visit us for a week or two. My mother was convinced that he could talk, but just hadn't tried, so she worked on him, telling him it was okay to do things on his own and telling him that he could talk. One day, he just started talking - in complete sentences. He started doing things on his own too. His family was surprised to get back an entirely different boy than the one they had sent out. His mother seemed disappointed that her son was now "normal" and would not need to be sent off to an institution.

As he grew up, he was subjected to further abuse, but now he resisted it instead of being passive. He talked about this burning rage he had inside him against all women. In every female, he saw his mother or one of his sisters. He began doing awful things to girls - hitting them at school all the time, pulling out their hair, beating them to the ground and then holding their faces in mud puddles. He said that, every time he hurt a girl, he got this wonderful feeling inside him, this incredible bliss.

He sometimes spent time with his female cousins, such as myself, and he was never mean to us. He told us that, in order to not hurt us, he had to think of us as males. It was a hard concept to wrap his mind around, but if he kept trying, he could almost make himself believe that we were males, and then he didn't want to hurt us.

As he became a teenager, his "pranks" directed toward girls became more violent and more sexual. I was disturbed by the new directions in his life and had less and less to do with him. He attended a particularly violent high school, which is one of the reasons he was never arrested.

His mother became so abusive that she was eventually estranged from the entire family, except for one daughter who became the new target of brainwashing. This daughter became so messed up that she told people that her only purpose in life was to serve her mother. She said that she would never date, and that she would always give every paycheck to her mother. As far as I know, this daughter has done that ever since. She has given up her entire life, and all friends, in order to be her mother's brainwashed slave.

Where is my cousin today? I know little about him, but I do know he is married. I do not know if he ever got rid of his violent tendencies toward females or not. If I heard that he was a rapist, or if I heard that he beat his wife, I would not be the least bit surprised. I haven't heard such things, but they would not surprise me in the least. I know that it is in his nature.

I also know that, except for this one crazy trait that makes him want to hurt women, he is otherwise a decent human being. As long as you are male, or he thinks of you as male, he is a lot of fun to be around. He has a sensitive, intelligent soul, he cares deeply about animals and about the suffering of the poor, and I've seen him go out of his way to help people.

In other words, if someone created a fictional character based on this cousin of mine, that fictional character could easily be a likable bad guy. My cousin never had a good reason for hurting girls. But he did have a good excuse. Very few men who hurt women have a good excuse. But, with my cousin, I sympathized with both him and his victims.

Good guys who sometimes do bad things or suffer from moral ambiguity have a good reason for doing bad things. Likable bad guys don't have a good reason, but they do have a good excuse for doing bad things. Unlikeable bad guys have an excuse that seems good to them, but it isn't. Cardboard villains have no excuse at all - they like to do evil just "because."

Higgins
12-14-2006, 09:07 PM
Im working on editing a short that I just completed. The character commits some pretty atrocous crimes and I am concerned that I am not generating enough sympathy to make the reader want to follow this crazy woman on her journey.

Is it best to approach subjects like murder and revenge with dark humor? How can you build this character into someone with enough depth that the reader sees through the acts and empathizes with them?

I probably should post a snippet in the post your work part of the forums so its clearer (Im chicken hehe), but id like to start by asking about development patterns to create a likeable character who does dirty deeds.

Any tips?

See Patricia Highsmith's Ripley books.

Or just see Patricia Highsmith:
http://www.wwnorton.com/highsmith/home.htm

WackAMole
12-14-2006, 09:33 PM
All this talking about making the character likable, or sympathetic, what it's really getting at is, we want the reader to relate to the character, to understand where he's coming from. That's where the whole, "Oh, yeah, I've had days where I've felt like chopping up my boss into little pieces and baking into a casserole to feed to my neighbors" comes into play. There are moments, sometimes even whole days, where everyone has felt that secret urge to do someone harm, but we've been taught that really bad things will happen to us if we do, so we step back before crossing that line.

So, when a character does it -- and acts like a frustrated commuter on a Los Angeles highway -- it's a type of wish fulfillment, and the reader can relate to it, even if they are horrified at the same time, because, you know, next time it could be our neighbor who is looking for someone to fill the casserole pan.

THAT is exactly the concept of this short. I was so disappointed in the movie "Falling Down" with Michael Douglas because at first I thought haha! heres a guy who is normal who just flips out and goes on this rampage. I went to go see it thinking I could revel in all my own darkest fantasies. The problem was, he was a psycho BEFORE he actually "cracked up" so the idea of him going on this rampage wasnt a stretch of the imagination.

The idea here is to draw readers in and make them snicker a bit, to think, "yeah, god I have wanted to do that so many times!" a story that makes you wonder "what if June Cleaver lost her mind?"

So one day, when I was really angry at my ex...and other things..i wrote this "what if" story. Now I am trying to develop it possibly into novella format, but first, I have to make sure I have edited it.