Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Unsympathetic Characters - Do or Don't Write Them?

I wanted to elaborate a lot on my answer to #10 in the article mentioned in this post, because it deserves a longer, more sensible answer than sass and a head flip.

'No unsympathetic characters.'

I strongly agree that this is a rule that should be broken more, by writers who know when, where and why to break it.

I've seen a lot of advice to new and/or young writers, the gist of which is: 'make even your villains sympathetic because if there is no sympathy point, then readers can't identify with them.' 

I disagree.  Partly.

First of all, it is a general rule and should definitely be broken sometimes just because every story is different and unique and as you listen to each story in your head and learn its voice, sometimes it demands this kind of character.

More and more lately I've seen books that follow this general rule becoming shades of gray.  (*gasp* Yes, I said it and yes, I hate that book for forever ruining a perfectly good and very useful phrase.)  I've seen it take writers to a place where there is no black or white.  When everyone is sympathetic and even the villains are all excused, where is the line between what's wrong and what's right?

I personally believe that in order to identify with a character, a reader does not necessarily have to sympathize with them, but they do have to understand them over the course of the story.  I don't think that you have to make a character sympathetic in order to understand them.  (I also think that you can make a villain sympathetic without excusing them, but that's somewhat off-topic for today.)

Characters in a book or movie should be true to life, no matter how unrealistic or fantastical the setting is.  Humans stay the same, in all time periods, in all circumstances.  There is nothing new under the sun and humans will always be human with human reactions and emotions.  (If someone is writing about robots or aliens, obviously, this doesn't apply to them in the same way.)

Case in point: a character who wants power just for the sake of power.  There is nothing sympathetic in that.  Let's say he had no traumatic childhood, no reason to want power for revenge or payback, no one to protect with it or help with it.  He just wants power.  People like this really do exist.

Let's look at Hitler.  He may have had a rough younger years, he may have been lonely and what-have-you, and his national spirit may have been smarting under the blows and sanctions dealt Germany after WWI but guess what?  Most of his actions before and during WWII just can't be sympathized with or excused.  They were actions of arrogance and prejudice... and thus very human.  And although Hitler is an extreme example, every single day people do bad things from similar motivations; thereby leaving no way in which they can be excused or even evoke sympathy.

In fiction, we need realistic, three-dimensional human beings and sometimes this means just plain hate-able people. 

In the end, every single story is different and the key is just to listen to its unique voice in your head; whether this means villains who twist your heart because they've had tragic pasts and they let it turn them into what they are now... or whether it means someone who is just an absolute jerk for the simple reason that they can be and therefore have decided to be one.

Happy writing and may all your characters be realistic and understandable.


  1. I've seen it take writers to a place where there is no black or white. When everyone is sympathetic and even the villains are all excused, where is the line between what's wrong and what's right?
    — BLESS YOU FOREVER because //THIS//. There's a difference between having three-dimensional characters and having morally gray characters, and not enough authors understand the distinction.

  2. This is so true! I will definitely remember this when I write again. Thanks so much!

  3. Hear, hear! Amen!

    I agree. Especially the bit Mirriam quoted. Just, yes.

  4. *surveys my spectrum from Echo to Amon* Thank you for making me more sure than ever that Amon does not need to be made any kind of grey at all. XD

    Beautifully written! :)

  5. Good points!

    QUOTE: "When everyone is sympathetic and even the villains are all excused, where is the line between what's wrong and what's right?"

    I find myself shying away from telling the story from the villain's POV for this very reason. Unless I plan to redeem my villain, I'm leery of getting into his/her head and risking the shades of gray--feeling sorry for the villain and excusing his/her actions. Turning the villain into a sort of twisted anti-hero (a trend we see more and more in our media culture nowadays).

    I like what you said about identifying with and even understanding why a character turns to the "dark side," if you will, but not sympathizing with or condoning their wrong actions. We can feel sorry for the villain who was horribly abused or saw terrible injustice in their youth, but we must realize that they didn't have to turn evil themselves because of it. They had the choice whether to let their bitterness consume them, or to seek help to heal the past and move on. And if they still refuse to repent, then they deserve to take the consequences.

    On the flipside, there's a danger in making our heroes "unsympathetic," too--i.e. snarky and insensitive, bossy, manipulative...even downright rude. This kind of "anti-hero" is more likely to be labeled a jerk and have to work really hard to gain the readers' sympathy and approval.

    Mind you, there are times when the hero starts out "unsympathetic" but has changed for the better by the end of the book. Or the villain is redeemed in some way. These can be powerful stories--if done right. As we often say in our household, balance is key.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Melody; you've given us food for thought and inspired us to do some thinking of our own.

    God bless, and Happy Writing,


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