February 17, 2020, 07:20:18 PM

Author Topic: Unrepentant Characters  (Read 853 times)

Online Alex Hormann

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Unrepentant Characters
« on: January 06, 2020, 12:21:59 PM »
In my current WIP, I'm writing about a group of the Firefly/Dark Matter/space cowboy type. One of the things I've always found about these rogues is that they're always portrayed as lovable. The main character of my WIP is actually a thoroughly unpleasant man. He manipulates others, is motivated purely by a thirst for power, and is perfectly willing to hurt innocent people in his quest.

What I'm wondering is how you can get people to root for a character who has no wish for redemption. Even Jorg Ancrath, the typical example of an unlikable rogue, has some redeeming qualities and even occasionally helps others. My character has more in common with the Master from Dr Who (particularly Derek Jacobi's War Master). The closes I can think of as a real comparison is Uhtred from the Last Kingdom, specifically the TV version, in that he is wholly self-motivated. Maybe Malus Darkblade from Warhammer too, though even he is good compared to the enemies he faces.

I had a look here:
http://fantasy-faction.com/forum/fantasy-book-discussion/do-main-characters-have-to-be-likeable-straightaway-in-this-day-and-age/
and found similar discussions.

My real question: How do you get people to support an nonredeemable character? Or even, how do you write someone like that without them just being the villain?
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Offline Neveesandeh

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #1 on: January 06, 2020, 01:06:58 PM »
The advice I usually hear first for this kind of thing is to put them up against someone even worse. '1984' is a good example of this. Winston isn't the nicest man in the world, but when he's up against the pure horror of Oceania we are forced to root for him.
 
If that isn't really what you're going for, then maybe it works to make them interesting and compelling. The movie 'Nightcrawler' is about a terrible person who only gets worse, but his struggle and eventual overcoming of obstacles still make him on some level sympathetic.

I also once came up with the idea of a protagonist who is so horrible that the reader is actively supposed to want them to fail, and in the end they do. No idea how to pull it off, though.

I think a reader can still identify with and relate to an immoral person on some level. They are still people, after all.

Offline Matthew

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #2 on: January 06, 2020, 02:40:41 PM »
Maybe just give them a sympathetic reason why they are that way, and a goal which would justify the darkness.

Online Bender

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #3 on: January 06, 2020, 03:12:40 PM »
Kallor from Malazan would be a good example. He believes he was right and his mass murder was a result of the gods actions against him. He still struggles to escape his curse and exact revenge by whatever means necessary. He believes he does not need redemption.

Nicomo Cosca from First Law is different example. He starts off as a mercenary, but in Red Country he just evolves into a person who is just amoral. He just doesn't care and is constantly looking for ways to seek pleasure irrespective of how. I find amoral people more scary than pure villains!

The point being "what drives them" and as long as you have a strong established backstory, the character will be worth the while.
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Offline Skip

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #4 on: January 06, 2020, 06:41:32 PM »
My first question is why do you want to write an unsympathetic character and then want people to feel sympathetic?

Second is an observation. It's personal but I don't think I'm alone in this. I'm not much for any character who is "purely" any one thing. It's the very definition of one-dimensional, which in fiction is pretty much synonymous with boring.

To look for truly appalling characters, look outside of fantasy. The main character in John Fowles' The Collector is as shocking a character as I've ever encountered. But I was fascinated. I couldn't look away, even though that sort of story is not at all the sort of thing I read.

For another example, try Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. Another beast in human form. He makes the main character of A Clockwork Orange look like the minor leagues.

But if you look closely at these stories, you'll see that however thoroughly psychotic are the characters, the author gives them more than one dimension. They are not purely evil. They are, to coin a phrase, beyond good and evil, at least in their own minds. Each story raises this question: what sort of person would do these things? And the answer for each is something more than merely that they are acting purely out of self-interest. There's more too them, however abhorrent.

Offline Peat

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #5 on: January 06, 2020, 07:19:40 PM »
I feel like I see this topic come up every month or so and most of the answers boil down to Neveesandeh's answer. If you want to get people rooting for the unpleasant, you make their opposition as much so if not more so. It is basically the only way.

Now, if you want to write a book where people read despite not rooting for, or even disliking, the MC, then that's a different kettle of fish. The power of fascination is different.

And I guess the one final answer is that if you write incredibly well and have a splendid plot and the rest of it... people will overlook an element they dislike. Or even start to like it for no real reason other than being surrounded by greatness.
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Online Alex Hormann

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Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #6 on: January 06, 2020, 08:20:51 PM »
The amoral angle is definitely the thing I'm going for. Villains who think they're heroes don't interest me nearly as much as people who are fundamentally broken.

Perhaps rooting for was the wrong phrase. 'Fascination' is a much better one. I don't want people invested in the character so much as interested in him.
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Offline Peat

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #7 on: January 07, 2020, 01:18:00 AM »
The amoral angle is definitely the thing I'm going for. Villains who think they're heroes don't interest me nearly as much as people who are fundamentally broken.

Perhaps rooting for was the wrong phrase. 'Fascination' is a much better one. I don't want people invested in the character so much as interested in him.

*clicks teeth*

I'm probably the wrong person to give advice about this as I don't have much use for such characters but -

a) The point about the plot stands and goes double. If they're to be fascinating, we need to be fascinated by their actions, which means the plot's got to bring it.

b) The point about their opponents stands and goes double. If they're to be fascinating, there's usually going to be a fascinating enemy, and it's got to be a worthy and powerful one. I guess you could write a mock-true crime book, delving completely into the bad guy eluding the space police... I dunno if that works, but its an idea. But it takes a monster to be a true challenge for one, right?

c) Skip isn't wrong about the possibility of people who are too purely one thing getting boring. A person who always goes for the route that gives them most power and who never has scruples could be easy to predict. Only could, but worth being careful about.

Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #8 on: January 07, 2020, 01:34:57 AM »
I think Skip has pretty much hit the nail on the head with making the character multi-dimensional and human, but here are a couple other ideas:

1) Humor. Doesn't matter how much of a dick a character is, if they're funny, most readers will like them. That doesn't necessarily mean they have to have a one-liner for everything. Their situation or circumstance can be funny too.

2) Get the reader invested in the character's plot or backstory. Think this one's self explanatory. A good story can keep some people reading, even if the character is unlikable. Think this one's harder to pull off with some readers, especially those who have trouble caring about the plot if they don't care about the characters.

3) Mystique and Fascination. Adding to Peat's point, if you've ever read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, it's probably the biggest shithead book of shitheads, but it's fascinating because the characters are so evil you can't look away. Add in the fact the primary villain is mysterious, possibly omnipotent, and possibly satan himself, and it keeps you reading.

I think the last one can be strong, if you can hit the right tone and the right audience. There's a reason some people love true crime and serial killer lore.

As another thought:

I've used the bad vs. bigger bad myself, and it does work, but I think it needs more than just a conflict existing between two characters. To me it's a framework that lends itself to the elements which really make a character shine; it's a catalyst for emotion and action. The big-bad is really just pressure put on the character to act and emote, no different than any other call-to-action, but the value in it is that it necessarily is a joint relationship between two characters, and personally, I think it's the interaction between characters where you really see who a character is and start to empathize with them.

One thing I particularly like about it, is that it sets up contrast: Why isn't my protagonist like my antagonist? What makes the two different? What in my character's backstory makes him stand up to the big bad, rather than try to join him? Again, it's a mutual relationship that provides a framework to build both characters; each the other's foil.

Offline cupiscent

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #9 on: January 07, 2020, 01:55:48 AM »
Consider also having other people in the cast that the audience can sympathise with, and with whom this bastard of a main character is in cahoots with, if not actively fond of. I find it exhausting to read a book where there's no one I care about (so I don't do it) and my opinions of characters have a lot to do with how they treat / feel about my favourites.

I'm also considering here other "unsympathetic" characters I've been very fond of and would follow to the ends of the earth, and I come up with... Tulip O'Hare. Her charm partly comes from Ruth Negga's amazing performance, but mostly it's about what she gives Tulip - a gleeful fuck-you amorality because no one else has ever cared about her (except those who she would die to protect), a kindness and humanity even as she does terrible things, and an amazing depth of sheer bloody-minded persistence that means every time the universe squashes her down, she just gets back up again.

She is also someone who tries to talk Jesus Christ into armed robbery, but she is not just a fun-loving criminal.

So yeah, I guess I'm just chiming in with the other great advice here. Give your character things to struggle against - antagonists, or antagonistic forces - and show us his struggles, let us relate to them as we also struggle with so many things in our lives, and show us that this guy is human too. Emphasise the ways in which we might be him, in similar circumstances.

Offline Jake Baelish

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #10 on: January 07, 2020, 02:43:12 AM »
I think all the advice above is great, so I've not much to add, but due to interest thought I'd throw in my two penneth worth anyway.

I really love the idea of an otherwise awful character being captivating enough to be hooked by. What I'd add to all the above are:

- give them a killer personality. Justan kind of said this by giving them humour. But generally, even the most awful person can have charisma and charm in spades and still be objectively abhorrent as a person. The Joker arguably fits the bill here.

- give them the usual struggles of a protagonist. People love to hear about those who were determined and had to go through trials and tribulations. The perseverance to fight on despite various difficulties is a large part of what makes a character captivating. This is probably the only thing that made me 'want' to see Jorg succeed!

While I haven't read it, 'The Shadow of the Conqueror' by Shad M Brooks (a prominent Youtube on the medieval era and fantasy in general) apparently has a protagonist who is a completely unrepentant, violent, nasty MCl but is captivating. Might be worth checking out to see how he does it.
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Offline NedMarcus

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #11 on: January 07, 2020, 04:34:16 AM »
Good advice here. I'd just add that James Cagney, in the gangster film White Heat, played an extremely violent, psychotic and unlovable character who did terrible things. The only redeeming characteristic was that he loved his mother. This wasn't enough to me to like him, but it made the character more interesting.

Perhaps showing one good characteristic might help.

Offline Peat

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #12 on: January 07, 2020, 09:25:45 AM »
Actually, thinking about it, I'm going to question how much you can't get people to just straight up like total pieces of work if they think the character is funny/clever/brave etc.etc.

Offline bdcharles

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #13 on: January 07, 2020, 10:01:14 AM »


What I'm wondering is how you can get people to root for a character who has no wish for redemption ... How do you get people to support an nonredeemable character? Or even, how do you write someone like that without them just being the villain?

I would be inclined to make them kind of funny with it. Get the voice right and get the personality out there.
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Offline isos81

Re: Unrepentant Characters
« Reply #14 on: January 07, 2020, 10:52:08 AM »
Andross Guile popped in my mind as I'm currently reading Lightbringer. Though, he is not pure evil. He has humane feelings.

If you want to turn someone despised into someone good, then I believe the best way would be to show that he has human feelings. Pity, love, self-sacrifice against worse evil are some examples. Otherwise, he will be alien to me throughout the novel.

Kallor shrugged. 'I've walked this land when the T'lan Imass were but children. I've commanded armies a hundred thousand strong. I've spread the fire of my wrath across entire continents, and sat alone upon tall thrones. Do you grasp the meaning of this?'

'Yes' said Caladan Brood. 'You never learn'