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.
Ashley Prince says
I actually just wrote a blog post recently on "bad guys" and why everyone loves them. As you mentioned in this post, it comes down to redeemability. Hannibal Lector was one of the main characters I kept thinking of as I was writing the post.
Ted Fox says
"We wouldn't normally like someone who eats flesh, but holy crap is that Hannibal Lecter smart and kind of hilarious."
Substitute "who is a perpetual wiseass" for "who eats flesh" and "semi-literate" for "smart," and I think you've also hit on why the world puts up with those of us who are humor writers.
Kim Wright says
I agree with the idea of redeemability but also think there's a believability factor. Twice in the last month I've stopped reading a book because it started out playing by a certain set of rules, i.e., it opened at a specific point on a the realism spectrum and I expected the story to be told within the confines of the world the writer had established.
And then the book suddenly veered off course. The protagonist changed – and not in a slow-growing, detail-specific, "earned" sort of way. But in a more "I've been told you have to keep a book uber exciting to hold a reader's interest so I'm going to all of a sudden throw in some dramatic crap" sort of way.
I'm all about character change and a redemptive lift at the end. But not if these changes seem too abrupt or too falsely dramatic
P. Grier says
The most interesting character in modern media to me is Dexter, the mild mannered serial killer who does so only to protect humanity. Excellent character concept and developed. It is hard not to like him, even as he is cutting into his latest victim and chatting up in girlfriend. He makes me question my own morality as I find I am liking a serial murderer.
The other characters that I thought of were Catherine and Heathclift. I never could warm up to them. I can't care about the two childish, petulant people.
I like the concept of redeemability, but there has to be some spark of genius to make me like them.
Julie Nilson says
I just read a book in which the main character is so unsympathetic that it ruins the whole book. I think the author believed him to be sympathetic, but he's so whiny and unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, he just comes off as a bratty teenager. It's too bad, because some of the secondary characters, who weren't "good" people necessarily, were actually more sympathetic.
Loree Huebner says
I have a character that even I don't like for the first 5 chapters…but he has an addiction . which he overcomes, and wins the heart of the heroine.
I am nervous about losing the readers for such a strong beginning…but it does work.
I'm querying this book soon.
Laura Drake says
This is such a timely post for me.
I've had an agent request changes -my hero isn't hero-like enough in the beginning of the book.
Now I know how to fix that…
Rick Daley says
Posts like this are why I keep reading this blog, that was an excellent breakdown.
WORD VERIFICATION: micar. The automobile in my possession.
This is a good post. It makes me feel good to see it validated that I did something right for a change. I have a series out and wrote one book with a mean, creepy character that readers seem to love. In fact, "they" were all worried (the editors) it might hurt the series. But it worked, thanks to redeemability.
Jaycee Adams says
We must have some reason to like the character. We must be able to identify with him in some way so that we can excuse his behavior. If he is utterly reprehensible for five chapters, don't plan on anyone making it that far.
This isn't to say he has to be a saint, just that there has to bea reason to like him. He's somebody's son, somebody's brother, somebody's best friend. Make sure that shows.
Leo Godin says
Nathan: Great post. It's nice to be able to define a concept we innately understand.
You make an excellent point. Believability is important in any book. I love stories of the fantastic, but character's reactions and motivations, even in fantastic situations, have to be realistic.
Nancy Thompson says
This is the whole premise behind my book: can a really good man, pushed to his limits, do a really bad thing & find his way back to the man he used to be? I hope I pulled it off, making the protagonist likable, because this thing he does is REALLY bad. But he's willing to sacrifice everything to make up for it.
I only hope an agent out there sees that or I'm toast!
Matt Heppe says
Nasty and redeemable can make for a great character.
Inexplicably stupid drives me nuts. I hate when an otherwise intelligent character makes really dumb decisions, or doesn't see something obvious, just because it serves the plot needs of the author.
Veronika Walker says
Very cool. I would totally agree with you; "redeemability" is the only explanation for Hannibal's and Macbeth's and Dracula's fame. Great post; thanks!
Redeemability might well boil down to empathic accessibility if reframed in a more clinical, less of an good vs. evil eternal sense. I've only seen the film version of Silence of the Lambs, but with two characters both performing vile deeds in one story–Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill–it makes for a good comparison. Meeting Hannibal Lecter is like being introduced to some refined person at a dinner party who you find out chaperons African safaris–a charming man with this one eccentric habit. Contrast this with Buffalo Bill. If empathy is the ability to see into another person's mind, Buffalo Bill never becomes less than utterly obscure. This is why psychopathy is so scary. Most important, there's Clarice who colludes with Hannibal and even shows a perverse sympathy towards him, neatly indicating to the reader whom of the two psychopaths to align with.
Re: Breaking Bad
D.G. Hudson says
Sympathetic characters we can identify with, for whatever obscure reason. They may have some trait in common with our own experience, or just be the type of person we like, doing things we ourselves might not do.
Unsympathetic characters are needed to offset the good guys. They increase the tension, and the likelihood that something will happen — they are the oil and the good guys' are the water.
Evil characters, or characters driven by a need to fix what's wrong in the world are what makes writing fun. Creating characters with multi-layers is one of the pleasures of putting a story together. I think you have to like your MC as well.
I remember when this post first appeared, Nathan, and it's still good advice.
Another great post! Let's face it, in most cases baddies are just so damn interesting.
I hope this is ok, but I wrote an article on characters as well a few days ago, so I thought I'd post a link. Thanks.
Barbara Kloss says
What a great post! I love your equation – never thought of it that way.
The whole time I read this, I kept thinking of Professor Snape. I loved that man and felt so manipulated by Rowling (which was fine by me). And good question…only in books are we okay with barbarism.
I will now keep your equation in mind so that I may masterfully manipulate my readers. MUAHAHAHAHA!
Mr. D says
When it comes to evil doers, Darth Vader has got to be the most beloved bad guy who never existed!
I stopped reading when you stung me with a book being flung against a wall, this kind of savage biblio-violence is irredeemable in my world.
Isabella Amaris says
'The redeemability meter'… lol I love that. And totally agree with you. This is one of the problems I've always had with my protagonists – not so much my villains – somehow, my villains always end up redeeming themselves, even if by a thin thread;) Ugh, back to the protagonist's redeemability drawing board for me…
The authenticity of the interior life of the character is a pretty crucial factor in whether they are even realistic which is the first floor of the house so to speak. Different genres require greater and lesser degrees of the development of the emotional lives of characters but in the end the write must be the god who breathes life into each. Essentially,if a writer doesn't think of the characters as either inherently good (sympathetic) or bad (unsympathetic) then neither will the reader.
K. C. Blake says
No more queries, lol. Come on, Nathan, you miss them, and you know it.
I was thinking about Damon from Vampire Diaries while reading this post. People love him, but he has done some unbelievably bad things including killing likable characters. So why do we still love to watch him?
Personally, I think it's because we see how much he suffers internally when no one else is looking. He pretends not to care what Elena thinks, but we know he cares too much. For some reason, people love to watch a character in torment.
you're posts have impeccable timing. I was just thinking yesterday how people are going to keep wanting the best for my protagonist, even though she's stuck doing the wrong thing
Roger Floyd says
Excellent comments. I struggle with believability all the time in my manuscripts. I have to keep asking my reader groups if they think the actions of my characters are believable, and so often the answer is no.
Oh, well, back to the drawing board.
Susan Kaye Quinn says
Awesome! I was just talking to some teen writers about this – what makes a character sympathetic and how do you do that when they're all kinds of messed up? I like the redeemability meter. Now I want to own one, preferably tricked out in steampunk gears.
B. A. Binns says
This may be an re-post, but it is timely for me. I'm in the middle of a story featuring the villain of my first book, and I knowI have to start him out with something that grabs the reader and says he's not quite as bad as he first looked. I can't give him a secret heart of gold inside his rough exterior – much to cliche, but I am showing his redeamability right from page two, and showing tht he did have a motive for his former bad acts, and can change, Here's hoping the readers want to stay with him while he decided maybe he should change.
I can't think of anyone who was more successful than Nabokov in creating a character who we should hate but don't.
In real life there is no amount of wit or charm that would make us overlook a grown man grooming a young girl for sex, yet we don't spend all of Lolita thinking about what a disgusting person Humbert Humbert is – for me this is the best example of creating an unlikely sympathetic character.
It's nice to see you dig up some gems, Nathan. You've written some really great stuff. And this is one of those, and a fascinating topic.
I think for villians to be popular, they need to be admirable (as you mentioned) and it also helps if they are in some type of emotional pain that they are trying to work out – albeit very poorly.
We admire Hannibal Lector for his brilliance, his humor in the face of imprisonment and his complete unwillingness to conform, and identify with his revenge fantasies (that he acts out, bad Hannibal!) and his isolation from the rest of humanity. We imagine, or at least I imagine, that on some deep level Hannibal is incredibly lonely. This stirs our empathy and our desire to redeem him.
Another really good example of this is the Phantom in the Phantom of the Opera. Really, this guy is despicable – he kills people, tries to enslave a woman emotionally, kidnaps and abuses her, but we forgive him because he is so lonely and ostracized. He's just trying to be loved like the rest of us, but his emotional pain has twisted him.
We all can make very poor choices in the face of emotional pain, so we understand the humanity of it, and identify.
Oh, and I think you're spot on about the protagonist not losing the reader or the reader will stop caring. Absolutely.
- -Alex McGrath says
This post makes me think of friendship:
Your friend does something bad or even despicable, but you let it slide, or make a joke about it, or make excuses for them.
Anyone else does the same exact thing, and you ridicule or hate them for it.
The same goes for ourselves though. We could possess the same character flaw or do the same evil thing as someone else, and we hate them for doing it, but can justify it when it's us doing it.
After all, you can be your OWN best friend.
The Pen and Ink Blog says
I was at dinner the other night and observed one of the most unlikeable characters I've ever heard. I snatched occasional glances at his table. He never looked up. And he never stopped whining. It was a rapid monologue conducted in a self pitying childlike voice. He seemed to be about 28 and the older man with him must have been his father. I know mental illness must have been part of the cause of his endless chronicle of terrible wrongs done him. All I wanted to do was shut out the sound of his voice and escape into my book. Just the thought of him is sending me back to my own post on chocolate. https://bit.ly/p4uUo5
W.G. Cambron says
Great article and true.
I think the reason my romance story is good is because though the MC is a skinhead, he obviously possess the charisma and intellect of someone more. Like you said on here.
This post specifically brought to mind Jack Bauer from the 24 TV series. There was a point in the last season at which he began to become more and more comfortable with unnecessary horrible things, and it was disgusting. I definitely lost interest in the show after that.
I think you need to have your Heroes and Villains dip into situations or actions that are out of character. Try/Fail scenarios that flesh them out as real and believable characters and not pure boy scout supermen.
The bad guy who just got finished killing a family of 5 because he followed them home from the diner because they annoyed him by letting their kid run around. Yet as he leaves he helps an old lady by holding the door open for her even though it will make him late to the soup kitchen he volunteers at.
And so how does Milton's Lucifer fit in to this schema?
Laura W. says
This reminds me of Paradise Lost. Satan is basically the hero–he's so horrible, yet extremely charismatic. And then he does something a little TOO horrible and you're shocking into realizing, wow, I've been on the side of Satan…Which was probably what Milton intended. 🙂