Unsypathetic Characters and Storytelling

I had a friend of mine read through my rough draft of Wandering Days. He pointed out many valid criticisms, but there was one that bothered me a bit. Namely, that I had too many unsympathetic characters. He didn't say that they were poorly written or poorly realized characters, his only complaint was that they were unsympathetic.

This is actually an issue I see often in film and game criticism as well. The character (more specifically the protagonist) was well written, but had unsympathetic motives and no sort of allure to them whatsoever. Many people see that as a bad thing; that it's poor storytelling that we aren't given anyone to root for or identify with.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

I feel that too many writers are afraid to have their protagonists unsympathetic in anyway because they'll feel like they'll let the audience down. Characters can have flaws, but the protagonists or major supporting characters can't be unrelatable or unlikeable. Their fears aren't unprecedented, it's considered taboo by many to have a hero whom they can't identify with. We've seen this with "A Clockwork Orange" among many others. I do however think it can make for a great story, as my example of "A Clockwork Orange" suggests.

Being alienated from the story can be just as engaging to the reader as being immersed. As for my story, Clementine, the main character, is very much a sympathetic protagonist surrounded by arrogance and corruption as the rats discover their place in the world. Main characters (again, specifically protagonists) can be annoying, stupid, arrogant, and selfish as long as the story compliments them well and we see them grow for better or worse.

Anyway, that's my rant for today.

Yes, I know the correct term for an unsympathetic protagonist is antihero. And I guess I shouldn't just use the word 'unsympathetic', but rather alienating. But you guys get my point...


  • edited June 2013

    While I agree with your general premise (arbitrary limitations in storytelling are arbitrary; "rules" are made to be broken), allow me to play devil's advocate for a moment. :)

    I'm going to basically invoke "The Author Is Dead" here and say that you as an author have no direct control over how a reader perceives, understands and interprets your work. Difficult stories require more effort on the part of the reader, so there is much greater onus on the writer to pay off that effort, otherwise you'll leave them feeling like I did after reading The Catcher in the Rye or The Scarlet Letter in high school: confused about why people think this is somehow important and not a waste of time. And let's be clear, I devoured plenty of other books at this time in my life, so it wasn't like I hated reading. You could probably also make the argument that I didn't have the right maturity or frame of mind to appreciate them; since I haven't read them since, I have no idea if I'd still feel the same way about them. I don't feel this weakens my point: as an author, you don't get to choose your audience. Your audience chooses you.

    So, yes, you can do what you want in your story, but readers aren't forced to take away the same things that you wanted to put into it, nor are they forced to find the work in any way worthwhile. You might find that you can get your point across better by having a sympathetic character that helps keep the reader engaged, and provides a contrast to your unsympathetic characters. Or you may have the talent to keep them engaged regardless of how sympathetic they perceive your characters. Success isn't a foregone conclusion though.

    That said, I do think that risk-taking in storytelling is an under-appreciated quality in new writers, probably because the line between success and failure is so very hard to judge without experience.

  • Thanks for your comment. :)

    Anyway, yes, I understand all too well the friction between the author and the reader. I made this post with the pretense that my audience /does/ in fact understand what I'm doing and why I did it. They're are people out there who will admit that the character was important to the story, was generally well written, and his unrelatable (is this not a word because it keeps telling me it's spelled wrong?) qualities did add to the story, but hold firm that it would've been better if I had written him/her in a way that would be relatable because it would somehow be a better read and broaden my audience; as was the case when I asked my friend why having such a cast of unrelatable characters would harm my story.

    Bias' do dictate opinions, as we're all biased. But to say there isn't an audience for a particular story just because a character isn't likeable I think is actually kinda dangerous.

    You see this a lot in any medium. There's a race to make the perfect movie, book, song, video game when it doesn't exist. There's no such thing as the perfect movie, book, etc, there are only perfect MOVIE(S), BOOK(S), ETC.

    The mentality of 'you can't do that because you'll be alienating a fraction of the readerbase' is what's ruining creativity as we know it today. We see a lot of today's "art" trying to mimic what's popular and most attractive. We see EA shovel out a Call of Duty clone every year. We see romance authors trying to mimic Twilight. We see mockbusters and cut and paste action films. We see the same characters in the same scenarios over and over and over and over and over again. And they fail. The people already have their Call of Duty, they have their Twilight, they have their Michael Bay action movie.

    So while, yes, I don't get to choose what my audience thinks about my work, there's a niche that isn't being satisfied. And part of problem is being told they can't do that. I'm in the position where I can tell my friend to buck off, but you can't really do that when your hands are tied. And because there is a vocal stance against something that could actually bring creative juices flowing, I'm going to call it out because it isn't helping anything. It's one thing to dislike something because you're biased, it's another to flatout say that you can't do it because of said bias. I for one think that one's conceptions can be turned. I hated spinach because I was told it was nasty, but I tried it, and now I love the stuff. So that's my point, people shouldn't be afraid of doing something different until they actually try it and that fear of risk is what's killing creativity.

    Also, yeah, I need to turn that auto draft thing off.

  • Very well put, esp. in your next-to-last paragraph. Just don't forget to apply it to your criticisms of others' work. ;)

  • edited June 2013

    DavidLeemhuis said:

    Very well put, esp. in your next-to-last paragraph. Just don't forget to apply it to your criticisms of others' work. ;)

    As my avatar of Nicolas Cage would put it: You don't say?

    I suppose it could be worse. My characters can have no flaws or the flaws they might have are explained away, forgotten about, or so minimal that they might as well not have them. And well gosh-golly-gee, what if Jenner wasn't arrogant or power hungry, he was just being experimented on by another character who turned out not to be evil either, but rather 'magically misunderstood'? Or wait, wait, you're gonna love this...What if Nicodemus somehow got a chance to be alive in a mouse body that didn't belong to him? What if also he couldn't figure out that his friend wasn't dead even though he could under normal circumstances, but was "influenced" by an -evil-, no, misunderstood character? What if all of this was explained in 3 long, convoluted chapters that don't add anything to the story whatsoever? Oh wait, you're going to love this! What if he had a spontaneous totally out of left field mating relationship with a character that no sort of bond with previously with a body that doesn't belong to him?

    But that would just be utterly ridiculous and absurd now would it? I mean nobody in the right mind would write such a thing!

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