Characters. What to do with them, right? And what’s the line between sympathetic and unsympathetic characters? Particularly the ones who do bad and horrible things? Why do we like some characters who do horrible things and dislike the heck out of some goody two shoes?
It all comes down to the concept of “redeemability.”
Redeemability involves more than just actions. We’ve seen lots and lots of characters in novels and movies who do utterly horrible things and yet we love them anyway. But if characters are going to consistently do bad things and retain the reader’s sympathy: they have to be likable. They have to be brave or brilliant or hilarious or charismatic or strong or all of the above.
They have to possess qualities that we admire in ample quantities. We wouldn’t normally like someone who eats flesh, but holy crap is that Hannibal Lecter smart and kind of hilarious.
Charisma – bad actions = redeemability
Why creating sympathetic characters is so tricky
Redeemability is a fickle beast.
If a character’s redeemability meter dips below a certain base line, that character will “lose” the reader. We’ve all read moments where this happened: a character did something so horrible and shocking and irredeemable that there was no going back. We’re officially done with that person. This may or may not be accompanied by flinging a book against the wall.
The redeemability meter often dips below zero when a character does something that’s wrong and there is not sufficient explanation for their actions. They weren’t misguided or deluded or well-intentioned-but-astray. They didn’t have an excuse. They just went and did it, and the reader concludes: they’re just evil.
And there’s no going back. The reader will make some allowances for a really likable character, but unlikability combined with unmotivated evil actions: that character has officially “lost” the reader. The worse the action the more insanely likable the character has to be.
Going beyond the pale
There are some actions that are just too far beyond the pale for even the most likable of characters, including using racial slurs and/or other powerful cultural taboos. (Oddly this does not seem to include killing people and eating their flesh. Books are weird that way.) There are also characters whose charisma level is so low it doesn’t matter what good deeds they do.
It’s fine for a villain to lose the reader. It’s also fine for a hero to lose the reader if you’re going all Greek tragedy on us and the hero is suffering for their fatal flaw in the climax.
But a protagonist, particularly a narrator, just can’t lose the reader before the absolute end of the book, and maybe not even then. It’s crucial crucial crucial that the protagonist, the person who the reader is most identifying with, has the reader’s attention and sympathy throughout the novel. Otherwise your reader will just stop caring.
And then they’ll stop reading.
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Art: “David Garrick as Jaffier and Susannah Maria Cibber as Belvidera in Venice Preserved” by Johann Zoffany.