ANY TIME YOU SHOW CONFLICT BETWEEN CHARACTERS, you want your audience to care about the outcome. Perhaps they’ll have an intellectual interest, if the conflict is over some idea or principle they happen to care about – but their feelings will run far deeper if they have great sympathy for one or more of the characters in conflict.
Sometimes you’ll want your readers to take sides – to be rooting for one character and hoping the other will fail. You’ll want them to sympathize with the character who stands for what you believe in – the character you conceive of as representing Good.
In fact, your readers will respond this way even if you don’t plan it. Let’s say your main character is Howard Eastman, a much-decorated Vietnam veteran who has gone into government service. There he becomes deeply committed to the cause of a group of freedom fighters in Central American country. When Congress votes to cut funding for these freedom fighters, Eastman determines to find ways to keep them alive and fighting. So at great risk – to himself and the administration – he circumvents Congress and finds various semi-legal ways of getting American money and weapons to his brave Central American friends.
If you have made Eastman sympathetic to your audience, they will assume that you approve of what he’s doing, especially if you make his opponents unlikeable. If you have created Eastman’s character well and continue to make him sympathetic throughout the book, most readers will go along with you, liking Eastman and hoping he’ll win. But what if you want them to disapprove of Eastman’s corruption of government process for the sake of a cause? What if you want the audience to reach the conclusion that Eastman was wrong?
The easiest course is to make Eastman the villain from the beginning, so the audience never likes him. Then your hero will be the American government official who unmasks or defeats him, or perhaps the Central American commander opposing him on the field.
Considerably harder is to start out with a very likable, sympathetic Eastman, and then through the course of the book gradually and delicately bring the audience to lose sympathy with him. Again, however, this is much easier if you have another hero – perhaps one who seemed to be a “bad guy” at first – who can replace Eastman in the audience’s sympathy.
The most daring course, yet the one most likely to transform your audience, is to keep Eastman sympathetic throughout, while facing him with an opponent who is also sympathetic throughout the story. The audience will like both characters – a lot – and as Eastman and his opponent come into deadly conflict, your readers will be emotionally torn.
This is anguish, perhaps the strongest of emotions you can make your audience experience directly (as opposed to sympathetically mirroring what your characters feel). Neither character is at all confused about what he wants to have happen, yet your audience, emotionally involved with both of them, cannot bear to have either character lose. The emotional stakes are raised to much greater intensity, and yet the moral issues will again be removed from a matter of mere sympathy; in having to choose between characters they love, the readers will be forced to decide on the basis of the moral issues between them. Who really should prevail?
This last strategy, of course, is far more dangerous, far less clear than the others. When you separate sympathy from moral decisions – exactly what a judge and jury must try to do in a trial – you can’t be sure that your audience will reach the “right” conclusions; you can’t be sure that they’ll agree with you. But you can be sure that they’ll care far more than they ever would from reading articles and essays on the issue.
In any event, all these strategies depend on the author’s knowing how to get the audience to feel sympathy or antipathy toward a character.
There’s another practical reason for knowing how to get your audience to like or dislike a character. Most readers of most types of fiction want to read about characters they like. And why shouldn’t they? If you were going to take a three-day bus ride, wouldn’t you hope to have a seat-mate whose company you enjoyed? Your readers are investing considerable time in your story; if they dislike your main character, it’s going to be a lot harder to persuade them to stay along for the whole ride.
At times, of course, you’ll want to violate that general principle and tell a story whose main character is pretty repulsive. Even then, however, with almost no exceptions, the writer who brings off such a story successfully is really not making the main character completely unlikeable. Instead, the character is given several major negative traits early in the story, and that the traits remain prominent throughout, so that readers don’t notice that the writer is using three dozen other techniques to create sympathy for the “unsympathetic” hero. The true “anti-hero” is rare in fiction. Most seeming anti-heroes are really heroes who need, metaphorically (e.g. referring to time, from being the farthest from the Sun) speaking, a bath.
One way or another, then, you’re going to need to know how to arouse audience sympathy or antipathy toward a character. I’ve found in teaching writing classes that when beginning writers create an obnoxious main character, often it isn’t because they had some notion of creating an anti-hero. Instead, these writers simply didn’t realize that their hero was becoming obnoxious. They weren’t in control.
Characters, like people, make good or bad first impressions. When characters first show up in a story, we start to like them – or dislike them – right away.
We Like What’s Like Us
The word like has a lovely double meaning: The most important ingredient in how much we like a stranger when we first encounter him is how much he seems to be like us. With important exceptions, we tend to feel most comfortable with and personally attracted to people who belong to the communities that are important to us, and people who are like us in ways that we are proud of. All else being equal, we feel more at ease in approaching a stranger who is our age than one who is older or younger; the same applies to economic class, style of dress, and so on. Likewise, when we find out that someone belongs to the same church or plans to vote for the same candidate or has the same attitude toward the President or served in the same branch of military or loves our favourite book or movie, our tension relaxes and we get some of that comfortable feeling of kinship – we “hit it off” from the start. It’s as if we recognize them, even though we’ve never seen them before.
We tend to feel somewhat tense around people who don’t seem very similar to us – people speaking a foreign language or wearing nonstandard costumes, or people who form a closed group to which we clearly don’t belong. We know that we’re not part of their community. And we get a definite bad impression of people who don’t behave in ways that we have come to think of as “normal”: people wearing the wrong clothes for the occasion, or talking too loudly, or using inappropriate language (too elevated or too low); people with bad personal hygiene; people who accost strangers on the street; people, in other words, who are not behaving in ways that we would behave. We tend to look past them, sidestep them, avoid them, shun them openly. They are not like us, and therefore we distrust or dislike them.
The things that make us instantly like or dislike people we meet in real life are pretty much the same things that make us instantly like or dislike the people we meet in fiction. We will immediately feel comfortable with a fictional character who reminds us of things we like about ourselves. We “recognize” the character. On the other hand, if we first see a character doing something physically gross or socially inept, or if we are shown a character who is foreign, alien, strange, then we tend to feel repelled, or at least not attracted.
Still, there’s a kernel of truth in the adage “opposites attract.” There are other, much stronger forces than mere similarity working to draw people together. We’ve all had the experience of learning to detest someone who seemed comfortably attractive at first; likewise, getting to know somebody better can help us overcome the immediate distance and suspicious that came from strangers.
And that’s a good thing for us as writers, because the one thing we can’t possibly control in our fiction is how much our readers are going to feel themselves similar to our characters. Wouldn’t it be horrible if the only readers who could possibly sympathize with a character were the ones who were just like him? How large an audience would there ever have been for Amadeus? There are so few of us who would qualify as a musical genius with an obnoxious mocking attitude. Or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – I’ve really never faced the choice of going to jail or being committed to a mental institution, have you? Both these plays (and films) depend absolutely on the audience developing enormous sympathy – no, love – for the main character. Yet in neither case did the author have the slightest hop of filling theatres with people who liked the character because he made a good first impression.
The liking that comes from a good first impression is immediate – and shallow. The dislike that comes from a bad first impression can be deeper; that’s what makes bigotry such a powerful negative force. But both can be overcome by storytellers who have even stronger tools at hand.
Alas, you are certain to run into editors or producers who don’t know that there are other ways to arouse sympathy. For instance, how many writers have been told, “The audience for books is mostly women, so you need a strong woman character in this book”? Too many – especially considering that it isn’t completely true. What is true is that if you use a male protagonist in a book whose audience will be primarily women, you won’t get instant identification. You have to work a lot harder to make the character sympathetic. You have to be a better writer.
You also have to have an editor who actually understands how storytelling works. These are relatively rare; most will reject your story or book because “women won’t like it.” And because stories with male protagonists probably won’t get published for a female market (like romance novels or women’s magazines), the editor can “prove” their maxim by saying, “Look – the only thing that sells is stories about women.”
There are plenty of examples besides women’s fiction. When a producer optioned the film rights to my novel Ender’s Game back in 1986, the first thing he decided (after the contract was signed) was, “Of course, the character of Ender has got to be sixteen.” Since the entire story depends on Ender being an innocent, trusting child, I balked. “Look,” said the producer, “the only way to have a hit sci-fi movie is to get the teen audience. And to get the teen audience, you’ve got to have a teenage hero.”
“What about E.T.?” said I. “What about Poltergeist? What about Alien? What about – “
“Those are exceptions,” he said.
Hi-ho, as Kurt Vonnegut would say.
It took producer Michael Douglas years of work to get One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest produced; there was tremendous resistance, in large part due to the “unlikeable” main character. Now that we know that the film was a masterpiece, now that it won all those Academy Awards, it’s easy to criticize those who doubted the story would work. They were wrong – about that story.
But the general principle has a foundation in truth: Making a weird or unpleasant character likable is very hard. So we shouldn’t be too critical of editors or producers who tell us that it can’t be done – they’ve seen so many manuscripts and screenplays that tried to do it and failed miserably.
So if you know you’re writing for an audience of women or teenagers or blue-collar workers or college graduates, it’s a lot easier to win their sympathy if you make your main character, the one you want them to like, a woman or a teenager or a blue-collar worker or a college graduate. Unless there’s a compelling reason in the story to do otherwise, why borrow trouble?
Sympathy vs. Curiosity
While we tend to like characters that are like us, we also tend to be a little bored with them. It’s strangeness, not familiarity, that excites our curiosity. It’s hard to imagine a blander character than one who is exactly typical of a certain group. So even if you decide, for simplicity’s sake, to use a main character – Nora – who is a member of the same community as your intended audience, you must also find ways to make Nora different and intriguing. Giving her a few attributes in common with the target audience starts you on the road toward sympathy – but doesn’t get you very far along that road.
Since no two women or teenagers or blue-collar workers or college graduates are exactly alike, you couldn’t possibly make Nora similar enough to everybody to attract the whole group anyway. The first impression that Nora gives the audience really has to accomplish no more than getting their attention. No matter whether the first impression was negative or positive, you will always end up relying on some of the other tools for creating lasting sympathy or antipathy.
CHARACTERS WE LOVE
Here are the devices that will make an audience tend toward lasting sympathy with a character.
One tool that makes actors into movie stars and ordinary films into smash hits simply isn’t available to those of us who work in print, not with anything like the same power. A filmmaker has only to put Robert Redford or Kathleen Turner or Tom Cruise or Kelly McGillis or Harrison Ford on the screen (with good makeup, lighting and camera work, of course), and at least half the audience will have great sympathy for the characters they portray.
In print, we don’t have that option. Oh, we can describe characters in terms that suggest physical attractiveness, we can show others being attracted to them – but we can never come close to the immediate impact of seeing an intriguing face or an attractive body on the screen or stage. We can never hear the exact timbre of the voice, can never catch that little smile or startled look that suggests a combination of humour and timidity and courage that is so endearing to the audience.
Don’t you have to describe your character? Not necessarily. When I turned in the manuscript of my novel Saints, both my agent and my editor complained that I never described Dinah Kirkham, the main character.
“You never tell us her hair colour,” they said, “or the colour of her eyes, or even how tall she is.”
True enough, said I, but didn’t you have a mental picture of her anyway? They both agreed that they had. Then, when I asked each of them what her image of Dinah was, you won’t be surprised to learn that each described herself.
I had used other devices to create sympathy, and by avoiding physical description, I allowed my female readers to put themselves into Dinah’s story far more deeply than if I had compelled them to see her another way. (If only I could have kept publishers from putting a painting of Dinah on the cover, the technique would have worked perfectly.)
You usually can’t get away with neglecting to give any physical description of your main characters. My point is not that description of characters is bad – just that in print, at least, it isn’t anywhere near as effective as other techniques for winning audience sympathy. Describe when you must, but don’t imagine for a moment that saying your hero has “a firm jaw, a fine, straight nose, and a tumble of light brown hair over his forehead” will win the undying devotion of your readers.
It can actually make some readers resent your character. “Another incredibly good-looking woman,” they’ll sigh, hoping she eats five cheesecakes and gains six inches around the hips. “Another man who can press 300 pounds but still looks good in a suit,” they’ll murmur, while secretly hoping he gets pimples. Listing all the features that make a character look terrific is not the same thing as seeing a terrific-looking person on the screen or in person. When you see the real person, his or her beauty can overwhelm you; when you get only the list of beautiful features, you’re more likely to see, not undeniable beauty, but all the people who got more dates than you in high school. Good-bye sympathy.
Altruism: Victim, Saviour, Sacrifice
Some of the devices we use to raise the emotional stakes – suffering, sacrifice, and jeopardy – also have a rather complicated role in creating sympathy.
When Nora is the victim of suffering and jeopardy, the audience will pity her; they’ll hope for her deliverance. But there’s a price: Nora will seem weak, and along with pity there’ll be at least a trace of contempt. (This is much of the reason why feminists object to having women in fiction always be rescued by men – even though the audience sympathizes with the female victim, they also disdain her.) You can compensate for this weakening of the victim by devoting some time to showing, in detail that Nora had no choice but to put herself in the power of her tormentor. Or you can show how courageous Nora is for refusing to despair. This is actually easier to do when the suffering is physical; if Nora is the victim of emotional or psychological suffering, you have to work harder to make readers understand why she doesn’t just leave the situation.
The audience will like Pete when he acts as a rescuer, stepping in to stop Nora’s suffering or save her from jeopardy. Pete’s courage is admirable, of course, but even more the audience admires his sense of responsibility for other people. They’ll admire Pete even if the rescue fails.
However, there’s always a danger of having a rescuer look like a fool for plunging in without enough thought – what if Nora was lonely and suffering from the cruel domination of her parents, and the audience won’t approve if he immediately starts taking over, insisting on rescuing her. They’ll wonder – correctly – if Pete is really saving Nora, or dominating her in place of her parents. If you want the audience to sympathize with Pete in his rescue attempt, you need to show his reluctance to intrude and the urgency of Nora’s situation. It also helps if Nora gives some signal that she wants to be rescued.
When Nora chooses to sacrifice herself, it will feel important to the audience – but it won’t necessarily win sympathy. There’ll be pity for her suffering, of course, but before the audience will admire Nora for her sacrifice, they must feel that the cause she is willing to suffer or die for is important and right. They must also feel that Nora has no other decent choice or that her sacrifice will actually make a difference in helping other people.
Above all, the audience will have no sympathy for Nora if she chooses martyrdom for no good reason but the desire to have a noble and glorious death or to make other people like her more. If Nora has a decent alternative to being sacrificed, the audience will insist that she choose it, or the sacrifice will be seen as a stupid waste rather than a noble act.
Plan and Purpose, Hunger and Dreams
Beginning writers often make the mistake of having their hero always react to the events of the story. The hero’s reactions may all be perfectly reasonable, but the result is a character who seems to have no initiative – a puppet being pushed around on the end of a stick. You know the kind of story I mean:
Nora was doing nothing in particular that morning – just enjoying the sunshine – when the car squealed around the corner and came to a halt in front of her…
Yeah, right. How often are you outside doing nothing in particular? Nora would be much more interesting if she were outside for a reason, trying to accomplish something. Then when the events of the story change her life, we have a sense that she actually had a life to be changed! If Nora was hurrying to a meeting with her daughter’s teacher, or rushing to the library to do research for a client, or worrying about possible results of the medical tests the doctor just gave her, she will still try to deal with her child’s school problems or the client’s deadline or the medical test results. It will increase the pressure on her – and increase the audience’s sympathy for her.
Besides specific plans, your characters will have continuing needs, hungers, hopes, and dreams. If the audience has the same needs, then they’ll sympathize with your character and hope those needs are satisfied. For instance, everybody understands the need for money – but you can make the audience sympathize with Nora even more by letting us know what she needs the money for and how long and hard she’s been working to get it.
As a general rule, audience sympathy increases with the importance of the character’s dream and the amount of effort the character has already expended to try to fulfill it.
You need to beware of clichés and over-sentimentality – only a naïve reader is going to get worked up over a little boy who yearns for a puppy, unless you show why this kid needs a dog. Still, you can almost always get an audience to sympathize with your character’s needs, even when they seem bizarre: Pete’s obsession with owning as many expensive new cars as possible will make him seem strange and greedy – until we know that as he was growing up, his father had to struggle to keep their old, beat-up car in running order. The one time Pete’s dad bought a new car, it ended up being repossessed under humiliating circumstances right after the layoffs at the plant. Now the audience will realize that Pete’s obsession with cars is a response to his father’s suffering. Instead of this hunger making him strange and unlikable, it will make him understandable and sympathetic.
When the story is about the character’s plan – a quest or caper story – or when the story is about the character’s need – as all character stories are – then this tool makes the character almost irresistibly sympathetic. That’s why audiences find themselves rooting for heroes to succeed at the most appalling things – robberies, assassinations, marriage-wrecking love affairs. Once we’re caught up in a character’s plan and dreams, we’re on her side almost without limit.
Courage and Fair Play
The audience will like Nora better when they see her take physical, social, or financial risks to do what she believes is right or necessary. When Nora has the guts to risk losing her job rather than keep silent about a bribery scandal, we admire her – and fear for her.
Along with courage there must be a sense of fair play, however – when Nora finally wins and the boss is forced to pay her damages and back salary, she can never gloat. Nor can she ever do anything underhanded or sneaky to win – if she cheats, she loses sympathy. This is the same rule that made it so the good guy in a western always had to wait for the bad guy to draw first; the good guy in a swashbuckler always let the bad guy pick up his sword after disarming him; and the good girl in a romance never uses cheap sex to keep her man.
Times have changed, of course, and writers don’t always hold their characters to those standards. What hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that readers still respond warmly to a character who is brave and plays fair, and they lose sympathy for a character who is cowardly and cheats. This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t write about characters who aren’t always brave and gallant – but it does mean you will forfeit some audience sympathy.
A character’s attitude toward other people, toward himself, and toward the events of the story can do a lot to win sympathy. When things go wrong, Pete doesn’t whine or complain about it or blame everybody but himself – he takes responsibility for his own mistakes, refers to his problems with wry humour, and tries to solve them. Nora never brags about the good deeds she does – it embarrass her when others praise her. When someone criticizes her, she never argues to defend herself. But when someone else is being criticized unfairly, Nora speaks up for him.
Pete always has sympathy for other people’s suffering, always tries to see things from their point of view. Nora may get angry, but she’ll always listen to the other person’s explanations, and she’s willing to trust people – even when they’ve proved before that they really aren’t very trustworthy.
Other characters may fail to recognize what good people Pete and Nora are – but their very modesty and self-depreciating humour and refusal to defend themselves make the audience love them all the more.
Draftee or Volunteer
If Nora is faced with the task that requires great courage, and it won’t bring her much glory – no one will ever know she did it – the audience will sympathize with her most if she volunteers. It will diminish her if she has to be forced into acting. On the other hand, if the task at hand is one that will bring fame or fortune, then the audience will have much more sympathy for Nora if she doesn’t put herself forward, but modestly waits to be called on.
It’s this simple. If somebody says, “I’ve got a miserable, nasty job here that has to be done,” then a character gains sympathy by volunteering. If somebody says, “If you succeed in this task, your name will be remembered for ten thousand years,” then a character gains sympathy by modestly waiting to be drafted.
This is why Tolkien made sure that Frodo never volunteered to be the ringbearer in The Lord of the Rings; rather Frodo tried to give the ring to somebody else until it became absolutely clear that he was the only once who could carry it. If Frodo had wanted to carry the ring, the audience wouldn’t have felt anywhere near as much sympathy for him – all his troubles from then on would have been the result of his own hubris in thinking he could measure up to the task.
This is also why political candidates always prefer to have it appear that they are reluctant to run for office – their audience, too, has greater admiration for those who have greatness thrust upon them.
When a good guy says he’ll do something, he keeps his word come hell or high water. If he breaks his word, he’d better have a good reason for it – and he’d better try to make up for it later.
I don’t mean that sympathetic characters don’t lie. A lie is a story told about the past, and dependability has to do with promises – stories the character tells about what she will do in the future.
How does this work? Pete stubbornly insists on trying to keep the family farm, even though it’s losing money. We know he’s going to fail, and if he sold it, he could pay for a college education for his younger brother, who hates the farm and hates Pete for making him stay there. The audience won’t have much sympathy for stubborn, self-willed Pete.
But what if Pete is holding onto the farm because of a promise he made to his dying father? Now the audience will like him for his dependability. In fact, they’d lost sympathy for him if he wasn’t stubborn. They’ll hope something happens to let the younger brother get away and go to college; they might even hope that Pete loses the farm despite his best efforts, knowing that everybody’s life will be better without the farm. But they won’t want Pete to break his word, and if he finally does give in to these pressures, they’ll expect him to feel deep remorse.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a promise in fiction. The pledge, kept or broken, is one of the strongest motifs running through all the world’s storytelling. It’s one of the deadliest accusations you can level against an enemy: He doesn’t keep his word. And if your main character causally breaks a promise, it will leave such a sour taste in your reader’s mouth that you’ll never fully win back the reader’s sympathy.
Notice that I don’t use the word intelligence. That’s because in our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance.
Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory. You have to walk a fine line, making Nora very clever without ever letting her be clever enough to notice how clever she is. Nora can have enormous self-confidence – but she can never think of herself as superior to someone else because she is smart and the other person is dumb. If she thinks of a brilliant plan and it works, it surprises her more than anybody.
A perfect example of this is Harrison Ford’s character in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Indiana Jones is a professor of archaeology – but we never watch him being intellectually incisive. The one time we see him in the classroom, lecturing, he is rather bumbling and confused – distracted by a coed who has written a come-on message on her eyelids.
Yet whenever things go wrong, Indiana Jones comes up with a brilliant – or dumb-lucky – solution. He’s smart, but he isn’t intelligent. The audience loves a character who solves problems and knows exactly the right facts when he needs them – but they don’t like a character who flaunts his superior knowledge or acts as if he knows how clever he is.
Endearing Imperfections: The Lovable Rogue
Now that we have a list of traits, actions, and attitudes that will persuade your audience to love a character, here’s the rub: If Pete is too perfect, your audience will stop believing in him. We’re back to that balancing act between caring and belief.
The answer to this problem is to give Pete some endearing imperfections. While using most of the sympathy tool kit to make the audience like him, deliberately give pete some small, understandable foibles to make us believe in him.
Again, a Harrison Ford character is a perfect example. In the Star Wars movies, Han Solo keeps his word, comes to the rescue, is physically attractive, brave, and clever, and has a great sense of humour – but he is also boastful (Han Solo: “I think you just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.” Princess Leia: “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser-brain.” And later Princess Leia: “I love you!” Han Solo: “I know.”) and all his plans seem to be motivated by greed and self-interest. He also doesn’t pay his bills.
The result? He’s the best-liked character in one of the best-loved movies of all time.
Hercule Poirot’s little vanities; Nero Wolf’s obsessive-compulsive behaviour and his weight – a mere seventh of a ton; Sherlock Holme’s rudeness and his cocaine habit; Scarlett O’Hara’s romantic delusions and brutally pragmatic actions; Rhett Butler’s shady past and mocking attitude: All of these traits normally don’t make us like people, but combined with all the traits that do arouse sympathy, the flaws make us love the characters more.
CHARACTERS WE HATE
Getting your audience to hate a character is much easier than trying to win their sympathy. Have a character do something wonderful, and it’ll fade in our memory if he fails to measure up. Have a character do something loathesome, and we’ll never forget.
Sadist or Bully
To make us dislike somebody, simply show her deliberately causing someone else to suffer in body or mind. If she enjoys causing the pain, we’ll hate her all the more. Remember the sadistic villain in William Goldman’s Marathon Man, using a dentist’s drill, without anesthetic, to torture the hero into telling information that he didn’t have. Remember Elizabeth Barrett’s father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, whose whimsical and arbitrary commands made him impossible to please, so that everyone around him was constantly tortured by guilt or terrified of punishment. Remember the queen alien in Aliens, who did not kill her human victims, but instead kept them alive, cocooned and in hideous agony, so that her young could feed on them when they hatched. Remember Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who kept up a cheerful, perky demeanor while deliberately subjecting her patients to degradation, making them less and less human. We hardly knew anything about these characters beyond their hunger for other people’s suffering – yet it made each of them the most memorable character in the story. They become the embodiment of pure evil.
Predictably enough, the very power of this tool guarantees that it will be overused. How many times have you seen this scene: Good guy Pete is completely in villain Nora’s power – only instead of taking a .357 Magnum and blowing him away, Nora spends ten minutes smearing him with flammable jelly, pouring gasoline over his head, and strapping butane lighters to his body – talking all the time about how she’ll love watching him go off like a roman candle. At the end of those ten minutes, when the audience is so on edge they’re starting to say, “So light the match already!” the police arrived in the nick of time and save Pete. If Nora hadn’t been such a sadist, Pete would have been toast.
The James Bond movie made this cliché into an art form. Bond is forever getting captured, but instead of killing him, the bad guys always put him in a situation that will lead to certain death – and then walk away. Whereupon Bond cleverly escapes and lives to fight another day. Never mind that the sadistic villain has been overused and misused. You just have to be careful to make your villain’s sadism believable.
It helps to keep in mind that the root of sadism is not the love of pain – it is the love of power, the sense of control over someone else’s body, someone else’s life. Thus it doesn’t have to be physical torture. The effect is the same whenever one character forces his victim to recognize that the victim has no control over her own life. Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest and Mr. Barrett in Wimpole Street never resorted to physical torture; it made their sadism all the more horrible – and believable. They were bullies; they used their power to torment the little guy. That’s the worst thing a character can do in fiction – the unpardonable sin.
Assassin or Avenger?
By comparison, mere murder is nowhere as powerful in making the audience dislike a character. Where bullying can never be justified enough to make the sadist sympathetic, murder and other crimes can. They are not surefire devices for creating antipathy. For instance, a character who is trying to assassinate Hitler or Stalin or Idi Amin is likely to have our sympathy right from the start – if the intended victim is made evil enough, the would-be assassin becomes a hero. The audience is never fully comfortable with the idea of cold, calculated murder – but the assassin can still be a hero.
When The Godfather first played in American theatres, the scenes of murder at the end of the movie brought cheers and applause from the audience. Why? Because every victim of Michael Corleone’s hit men had earned our hatred by betraying a trust or by making a cynical, cowardly attack on a character we liked. But The Godfather: Part II carefully did just the opposite – it showed that the Corleones used murder, not for the sake of justice, but to increase their power. When Michael orders the murder of his own brother, a weak, pathetic figure, we understand why, but it’s still a monstrous act.
A rule of thumb: Murder and other crimes will only make a character into a villain if he commits the crime for selfish reasons, and if the crime harms people who don’t deserve to be hurt. But if your character is committing a crime in order to save others from suffering, or if the victim of the crime richly deserves to suffer or die, then the crime will actually make your character sympathetic. In the classic caper movie The Sting, the characters played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford perpetrate an elaborate hoax in order to bilk the villain, played by Robert Shaw, out of a large amount of money. The motive for the con, however, was not the money – it was vengeance for the villain’s casual murder of a friend of theirs. Shaw, on the other hand, was drawn into the con by his greed and by his desire to bring other people under his control.
The villain’s crimes made us hate him. The heroes’ crimes made us love them. Redford and Newman played crocks – but in this con their motives were unselfish, and compared to Shaw’s character, they were saints. Motive makes all the difference in assigning a character’s relative place within the moral spectrum a given work of fiction shows to be possible. A con man is an honest man, compared to a cold-blooded killer.
One of the nastiest things you can say about another person is that she is self-appointed. “I don’t know why we need to pay any attention to self-appointed experts like Nora,” says Pete – and unless Nora can show that she was in fact appointed by someone else, she has lost much of her credibility.
It’s a strange thing about human nature, but we simultaneously disdain people who are dull and unambitious – and resent people who try to push their way up to a higher level. The younger brother trying to tag along when his older brother is out with his friends; the lower level co-worker trying to tell you how to do your job; the buttinsky neighbour trying to give you advice on saving your marriage – don’t these people know when they’re not wanted?
So strong is our aversion to people trying to put themselves in a position where they weren’t invited that it can overcome a great deal of sympathy. In The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers spends the bulk of the novel building up our sympathy for her main character, a lonely young girl who doesn’t know where she belongs. This girl, Frankie, has come to believe in the delusion that she will be part of her older brother’s wedding – that he and his new bride will welcome her along in their new life. “They are the ‘we’ of me,” she says. Yet despite all our affection for Frankie, when she climbs into the back of the honeymoon car, we don’t for a moment expect or even want the newlyweds to take her along. We grieve for Frankie, we ache for her disappointment, but we have no sympathy for her effort to include herself where she wasn’t invited.
This is especially true with characters who try to take a high position they don’t belong in. Usurpers get no sympathy in fiction. Shakespeare knew this: The audience would never has sympathized with the character Macbeth if he had simply appointed himself king and killed the present king out of pure ambition. Instead, Shakespeare went to elaborate lengths to show that Macbeth did not appoint himself. It was the three witches who first prophesied that he would be king; Macbeth did not take them seriously until the first part of their prophecy came true. Even then, he would have taken no action had his wife not urged him on to murder. Macbeth was a usurper, yes, but he did not appoint himself. That he was appointed by evil forces – the witches and his soon-to-be-mad wife – makes the audience agree that he must be deposed, but the fact that he was not self-appointed allows us to have some sympathy.
But by and large, a person who claims a position that he was not appointed to by an authority outside himself has utterly lost our sympathy. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig was never able to live down that moment when, with President Reagan in surgery to remove a would-be assassin’s bullet, Haig announced, “I’m in control here.” He explained a thousand times that he meant only to inspire public confidence that the central government was not in disarray – but he could never overcome people’s perception that he had tried to exercise power that simply did not belong to him.
A fictional example comes at the conclusion of the play Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Matthew Harrison Brady is completely discredited by the fact that he has appointed himself as attorney for the prosecution and as an expert on the Bible. His final collapse begins with his admission of the ultimate hubris. “God tells me to oppose the evil teachings of that man,” he says, thereby confessing that he imagines that his words are God’s words. It leads to his opponent, Henry Drummond, ridiculing him unmercifully. “The gospel according to Brady!” cries Drummond, and he bows down before his opponent in mockery, crying, “Brady, Brady, Brady almighty!” Ordinarily, Drummond’s bullying of Brady would have lost Drummond all audience sympathy – but Brady’s usurpation of authority is so audacious that Drummond’s ridicule is not seen as bullying at all. It is the restoration of the just order of things – exposing Brady and bringing him down from the high position to which he appointed himself.
How long does our resentment of or annoyance with a self-appointed interloper last? Until he wins an invitation. Even after Pete has made us dislike him by forcing himself into a place where he wasn’t wanted, our antipathy isn’t permanent. If he later proves that he deserves his new place, if he earns the respect of others, then he ceases to be an interloper. He belongs. This is, in fact, the subject of countless stories – probably because at sometime in our lives practically all of us have felt like interlopers, and we long for reassurance that we will eventually win acceptance in that new situation. The only thing that can save an interloper is vindication – but then he isn’t an interloper at all.
Nora grimly agrees to Pete’s harsh terms. “All right,” she says. “If you promise not to tell anybody about my involvement with Hiram Doakes, I’ll tell you where he gets his funding. But my name can’t come into it – it’ll ruin my father’s business and destroy my marriage.”
“You have my word,” says Pete. “I won’t let this touch you at all.”
Nora tells all, and leaves. Pete immediately picks up the phone and has his secretary place a call to the editor of the Tribune. “I’ve got the goods on Hiram Doakes,” he says. “If you want the story, you’ve got it. My source? His lover for the past three years. Nora Simms. N-O-R-A, S-I-M-M-S. Her father owns Simms Construction. Of course you can use her name – just don’t tell anybody you got it from me.”
From that moment on, the audience knows that Pete is slime. When a character breaks a promise or betrays a trust, the audience takes that betrayal personally – Pete has achieved villain status, and readers will be longing for his downfall.
It’s no accident that so many bad guys speak in very formal, precise language.
“Look, buddy, you can’t get away with this,” says the hero.
“Do you think not?” says the villain, raising an eyebrow. “Do you fancy you can terrify me with your absurd threats?!
“There’s too many people already on to you,” says the hero.
“Do you mean the police? Those pathetic bumblers?”
It isn’t just the villain’s vanity that makes us dislike him. It’s the fact that he talks in an educated manner, using big words. You can almost hear him dropping r’s as he speaks. No doubt he attended Harvard – if not Oxford.
This isn’t true in every culture, but certainly the American audience resents any character who is smarter and better educated than other people. Robert Parker can only get away with having his detective, Spenser, quote poetry because he works to establish Spenser as a tough guy. For every line of poetry, Spenser has to work out half an hour in the gym to win our forgiveness for his erudition. We’re afraid of and resentful of people who know more than we do, and when they act as if they think it makes them superior to us, we hate them.
We are terrified of people who don’t live in the same reality we do, who don’t have the same definition of rational behaviour. You can’t talk to them, you can’t reason with them; there is no common ground. However much mental health professionals might deplore it, the fact is that when the public is convinced someone is dangerously insane, all considerations go out the window except one: stopping this crazy person. Unless the storyteller works very hard to win sympathy for the insane character, the audience has no qualms about seeing him brutally subdued or killed. The world isn’t safe as long as the madman has any chance of escaping. And if, like Charles Manson and his “family” or Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, the madman has succeeded in convincing others that his version of reality is the truth, the audience’s fear and loathing is all the greater.
In film and on stage, insanity is easy to depict – a wide-eyed stare or darting eyes, nervous tics. But the best actors don’t resort to such easy tricks, and neither do the best writers. It is far more effective to convince the audience that a character is insane by letting us see her strange perceptions of reality – her paranoia or delusions.
“Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing?” asked Nora softly. “I know why you brought me here.”
“Yeah,” said Pete, a little confused. “I brought you here for dinner.”
“You just want to impress all your friends,” she said. “You just want them to see me with you. But it won’t work. I’m in disguise. That’s why I wore this red scarf. Nobody ever recognizes me when I wear this red scarf.” She leaned forward and whispered a secret. “I took it from my mother’s coffin before they buried her.”
Oh good, thought Pete. Not only is this the most expensive blind date I’ve ever gone on, not only did Steve and Gracie back out at the last minute so I had to go alone, but also this Nora turns out to be crazy. If she isn’t at least OK in bed, Steve will not live to see another day.
“Don’t eat any of the shrimp sauce,” Nora said. “It’s poisoned.”
There is no chance that the audience will be hoping for Pete and Nora to end up with a long-term relationship. They will have no sympathy for Nora’s character – unless the author goes to extraordinary lengths to make her sympathetic, either by showing the cause of her insanity or by convincing us, somehow, that she isn’t insane at all.
This is what was done in the brilliant film A Woman Under the Influence. The main character has just returned from a mental hospital, and her family treats her very gingerly; neither she nor they are fully convinced that she is cured. But as the film goes on, we gradually realize that while it was the main character who attempted suicide, she isn’t crazy – it’s her husband who’s truly evil and insane, even though nobody else realizes it, and he makes her life so unbearable that suicide seems like the only possible escape. She is saved from her husband’s pathological rage only by heroic efforts of her little children. By the end of the film your sympathy with the woman is complete – but by then we also don’t think of her as an insane person. It’s her husband who’s insane, and true to the rule, our only feeling for him then is loathing and fear.
The only time insanity can work for a character is when it’s kept within safe bounds – minor eccentricities that can even be rather charming. And even then, an insane character is almost never viable as the main character in the story. The audience is rarely comfortable enough with insane characters to want to spend any length of time with them.
The bad guy’s attitude toward himself and others is the mirror image of the good guy’s. to make us dislike Pete, make him humourless, completely unable to laugh at himself. When things go wrong, have him whine and complain and blame everyone but himself. When things go right, have him take all the credit and boast about his accomplishment. Make sure Pete never shows regard for other people’s feelings, judges people without listening to their explanations, and never trusts or believes anybody. Pete always treats rich and influential people better than he treats the poor and powerless, and he has no qualms about being a flaming hypocrite. In short, he treats other people as if they exist only to serve his purposes. You can be sure the audience will detest him.
Redeeming Virtues: The Understandable Villain
While readers will eventually get sick of a hero who’s too good to be true, they almost never refuse to believe in a villain. Unless you deliberately make the villain comic, there is almost no limit to the audience’s willingness to hate and fear – the seemingly endless series of Friday the 13th sequels make that plain enough.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you should create completely evil villains. While many stories – perhaps most – draw clear distinctions between good guys and bad guys, there are also quite a few stories that don’t.
At the beginning of this Chapter I mentioned my fondness for stories in which all the characters are at least somewhat sympathetic, so that the audience is never given a clear list of people to love and people to hate.
Even if you don’t go that far, however you can still improve your story by making sure that your negative characters are as honestly depicted as your heroes.
What you must remember is that everybody is the hero of his own story. Even if a character is completely evil, he will no doubt have his own internal story that depicts him as noble. Perhaps he fancies himself a benefactor, an altruist. Perhaps he feels that his innate superiority gives him the right to exploit other people the way people exploit lower animals. Perhaps he feels that ill treatment he has suffered in the past justifies any harm he causes now. Perhaps he believes that everybody acts the way he acts – they just pretend to be nice. The bad guy doesn’t necessarily believe his own version of events – or at least not all the time – but one way or another, the bad guy has found a way to justify his actions to himself, and if you’re going to depict him honestly, you have to let your readers know his version of events.
You can soften your “bad guys” even further by partially justifying their actions. Just as you can make a hero more believable by giving him endearing imperfections, you can make a villain more believable by giving her compensating virtues. Show that there is someone she loves or respects; show that she does keep some promises; show that she really was deeply wronged at sometime, so that her hate and rage is partially justified. You may never actually persuade your readers to like her, but you can win their respect. In fact, by giving your villain some ennobling qualities you actually make her a worthier opponent for your hero.
What you can’t do, however, is make a sadist or a bully or a madman or a usurper into a completely sympathetic character. Any story that seems to do so always does it by showing the reader, at some point in the narrative, that in fact the character is not a sadist or a bully or a madman or a usurper, that when you thought he was, it was an illusion or a misperception; he was only pretending to be a bully in order to accomplish some noble purpose; he was under the influence of drugs or hypnosis and so it wasn’t really “himself” doing all those bad things; his children were being held hostage and the person he killed with his package bomb really deserved to die anyway; his actions were fully justified if only people knew the true story; he really was the rightful heir to the throne and not a usurper at all; and so on.
The storyteller’s strongest tools for provoking the readers’ antipathy cannot be overwhelmed by the tools for arousing sympathy. As long as they remain true within the story – as long as you don’t deny that Nora did the terrible things you showed her doing, as long as you don’t deny that the things she did were terrible, and as long as you show that Nora is still the same person who did those bade things- then the audience will never be on Nora’s side. The most you can do is soften their hatred for her, show that she is more to be pitied than to be hated or feared. Even if the readers come to feel great pity for Nora, at no point will they want her to emerge victorious.
Nobody wants Oedipus to stay married to his mother. Nobody is rooting for Macbeth to win.