Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sympathy for the character

I'm reading one of those books where, character-wise, my sympathies do not seem to be aligned with the author's. That is, I like the character I'm not supposed to like a heck of a lot more than I like the two characters I am supposed to like.

As an author, I'm naturally interested in how this happens, what the author has done to alienate me from Characters A and B and defend Character C, when clearly I'm "supposed" to feel the other way around. Here's what I've identified so far:

--Character C is more passionate than either A or B. Both A and B have drifted along, with vague ambitions that they've never really pursued, doing a lot less than they're capable of. C has smaller ambitions (for which C is criticized by both of the other characters), but at least C has pursued those ambitions with zeal. The thing that A wants most, A has never even taken the slightest step to pursue (and somehow sees this as C's fault).

--C is sort of quirky and hapless and, early on, is placed in a vulnerable and quite funny situation (from which A is completely absent). This was the start of my sympathetic connection to C. Right after this scene, A does something deliberately mean-spirited toward C, which made me dislike A. I think this act by A is where my sympathies were most firmly channeled into the pro-C anti-A camp.

--Early in the book, Characters A and C have a difference of opinion over a subjective matter. The book immediately implies (and continues to suggest) that Character A is "right" and C's views are pathetic. But as a reader, I'm unconvinced. Since this is a matter of opinion, I don't see how either of them can be "right," or why C's opinion isn't just as valid as A's. This perceived unfairness toward C shored up my protectiveness toward C. And at one point, C has a chance to thwart A's expression of A's differing views, but instead enables A to find a wider audience for those views.

--There's a scene where A blames C for something that was under A's control, not C's control. After several pages of fuming at C, A only seems vaguely aware that maybe the true blame lies elsewhere.

--C does some things that benefit B, but B has only contempt for C.

--Both A and C deceive each other. C confesses immediately. A punishes C for C's deception, but continues in A's own deception.

Maybe I'm wrong and the author is planning a twist; maybe I will find out in the last third of the book that C is supposed to be one of the good guys, and not a buffoon after all. So far I think not. (But if that happens, then this author is a genius at properly manipulating my sympathies.) Overall, though, whichever way this book goes, this has been a useful exercise in allowing me to see what can make characters likable and unlikable. In this case, I see that when a character is treated meanly and unfairly by other characters, the so-called justification of "but that character deserves it for being really boring/nerdy/annoying" doesn't always work, and the unfairness may backfire, leading the reader to sympathize with the supposedly boring/nerdy/annoying one.

11 comments:

  1. Okay, I could have sworn I commented here, but it didn't take. I think. (If you see two, just ignore one!). I just put down, as in stopped reading, a book that had a protagonist I liked, but kept taking me AWAY from her, into other povs and even into a history book. I know there are authors who can do this and who have kept me happily reading, but this one failed. Just kept getting angrier and angrier at not getting to stick with the hero.

    Will you finish your book, do you think? Will it be enough of a pull to see what the author manages at the end?

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    1. I did finish it, because it was a fast read and because there was enough in the main plot to make me curious. Had it been a slow, dense read, I probably would have dropped it.
      At the end, the characters were rounded more and the bias was softening, and Characters A and B actually did something nice for C. But at the very end, A did something so wrong and underhanded to Character B that it left a sour taste. I think we were supposed to see it as A pursuing a dream, but I just saw it as a huge betrayal of B.

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  2. This happens to me a lot. I think it might be because characters like C are often minor, supporting, or secondary characters who are there to provide a contrast or foil to the protag -- often to their less savory qualities. By continued interaction with C, A and B will change over time and may learn from C's example. By being forced to spend time with a person who is different, they come to question, understand, and even change their own views. So C is a more likeable character but only serves to facilitate the character development of A and B.

    That, or C ends up being the token objector/token person with the differing viewpoint so that it doesn't look like A and B never considered other options, plans, or views.

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    1. C was definitely a catalyst for A and B. C did change also, though in the end it wasn't clear how lasting each of their changes were.

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    2. What was the book, if I may ask?

      I always get annoyed when the sensible, likeable character sticks around with the other idiots who don't appreciate him/her.

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    3. I don't like to name books about which I have to make negative comments. So I scrub the identifying details and just focus on the issue/point I'm trying to make.

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    4. Makes sense. Funny, though, I didn't interpret it as being negative towards the book, just towards a character. Some books and plays that I really like have characters that I really don't, haha.

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    5. "Some books and plays that I really like have characters that I really don't, haha." Me, too!

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  4. I tend to feel sympathetic for the secondary characters whose purpose is to temporarily distract the one lead from being with another lead, or vice versa, although usually the trope I see is the male lead being with a female considered more "average" while he secretly longs for the beautiful female lead. We can usually see that these secondary characters have likeable qualities, if they're not portrayed as villains, but the story is set up so that audiences root for the male and female leads to be together, and perhaps even dislike the secondary character for getting in the way. Once the lead tosses the secondary character aside for the other lead, we are supposed to rejoice in this union. But I often feel bad for the secondary character whose feelings seem to matter less than that of the leads.

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    1. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I often root for the secondary character in these situations. When I teach writing, I encourage people to remember that the secondary characters get to have lives, too--they are the central characters in their own stories.

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