A few posts back I discussed the issue of character likeability and whether a writer is obligated to create likeable characters. For the most part my answer is no, with one caveat: it is usually in the best interest of the story to make an unlikeable character sympathetic, particularly if he is immoral. As I mentioned earlier, giving immoral characters a sympathetic turn is one of the great hallmarks of skilled writing—especially when a writer convinces a reader to set aside his own moral code to root for the bad guy.
How is this done?
Character detail and depth are key, but the real secret is that an author must have a genuine affection for each of her characters. She must love them like her own children, mourning their failures and cheering on their successes, no matter how nefarious the goal. When everyone hates her character, the author has to be the one who says, “I know he did a bad thing, but give him a chance—he really is a good boy.”
It may seem like a stretch to expect a writer to be in love with murderers and thugs and all sorts of despicable personalities, but most writers understand that every character has their own point of view and a story worth telling. Better writing explores the nuances of moral ambiguity, gives voice to the voiceless, stirs compassion where normally there would be none.
In order to evoke sympathy, it’s not necessary to psychoanalyze and delve deeply into the past, though backstory can certainly help. Often, all you need to do to get a reader on your side is to show a little weakness. For example, in my novel, THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, the main character, Francis is bullied by his oldest sister, Jackie. There is very little to like about Jackie—she is mean, emotionally stunted, greedy, and frequently uses threats and force to get her way. When I was writing the story, I knew that no one would really care for Jackie, but I still wanted to gently plead her case because she had been shaped by neglect, insecurity, and self-loathing. Despite her behavior, I knew that she wasn’t all bad.
To show her vulnerability, I constructed a scene between Jackie and her mother, Franny Pinkham. Franny tells Jackie (who is in her early twenties) that it’s high time she moved out and looked for a place of her own. Jackie does not take the news well, and in her typical fashion tries to run out of the kitchen. Franny blocks her, but Jackie plows through and ends up accidentally pushing her mother. Franny hits her head on the counter and falls to the floor. The head wound is small, but there is enough blood to make it look bad.
Given Jackie’s past insensitivities, it would not have been entirely unexpected for Jackie to leave her mother there on the floor, but really, only a sociopath would leave their mother alone and bleeding. This scene was a perfect opportunity to show Jackie’s fumbling humanity. Instead of running, she sinks to the floor and cradles her mother’s head in her lap. She still isn’t quite capable of an apology—at first she blames her mother for falling, then she says it’s an accident—but Jackie’s sudden gentleness shows the reader that she is truly sorry. Jackie becomes even more vulnerable when she says, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do.” It’s a refrain that refers not only to the urgency of the moment, but to the uncertainty of her future.
Action movie characters are often humanized by a love interest or friendship. While most of the time the hero’s actions are criminal, the audience will cut him some slack when they discover that he was once deeply in love or a very loyal friend. Usually, the love interest or the friend has been killed and our hero is a loner once again. Because he is capable of love, he becomes human in our eyes. The moral code is realigned toward this loss, and while we may or may not agree with how he handles his thirst for vengeance we can at least understand his motivation. He has now become a sympathetic character.