As a reader, I like characters who aren’t perfect, characters who make mistakes and have flaws. But I still have to like those characters. So how far can a character go without losing the sympathy of a reader? Can he commit murder? Can she lie or cheat? Can he steal?
A character who steals just because he’s too lazy to get a job isn’t going to be sympathetic. On the other hand, a character who lost her job in the recession, lost her home in the sub prime mortgage meltdown, who is now homeless, who has no health insurance and whose child is sick and hungry, a character who feels humiliated and desperate to keep her family alive—it’s entirely possible this character could come across as someone we relate to and root for, even if she steals food for her family.
Most of us would definitely agree that killing is wrong. A character who commits a murder because it gives him a feeling of power and pleasure to take another life is not going to be sympathetic to readers. But what about a Navy SEAL who raids a top secret compound housing the most wanted terrorist in the world and puts two bullets into that terrorist? Would we understand and sympathize with his motivations? Would we consider him a hero?
And yet both those situations involve taking another life.
Few authors would attempt to write a story with a heroine who is a prostitute, but it’s been done successfully. Lori Foster’s When Bruce Met Cyn features a heroine who escaped a childhood of neglect and abuse by running away at age 17 and who survived the next five years supporting herself the only way she knew how—by selling her body. She ends up meeting and falling in love with a preacher. I think Lori Foster made Cyn both understandable and sympathetic.
I enjoyed Toni Blake’s One Reckless Summer because of the questions it raised about right and wrong. The hero harbors a convicted criminal and the heroine finds out about it. She has to keep his secret. Or does she? When is breaking the law the right thing to do? When is it right to keep a secret...tell a lie…or betray a trust?
Sandra Brown’s novel Play Dirty also raised a lot of questions about right and wrong, and took risks with potentially unsympathetic characters. The hero Griff has just been released from prison after serving a five-year sentence for racketeering. And yet we end up rooting for Griff and in the end, we understand why he did what he did, and what he learned about himself. Also, the heroine Laura is married to another man…and sleeps with Griff just to get pregnant, with her husband’s blessing. Why would Griff agree to such a thing? Why would Laura agree to such a thing?
Part of it is character, and staying true to that character; someone who is aggressive and confident will react differently and make different choices in a given situation than someone who is meek and unassertive.
But I think much of making a character sympathetic has to do with motivation. Why would someone do that? When characters do things that we would normally consider very wrong and yet we still root for them, we have to understand why they are doing that. If an author can explain a character’s motivation in a way that’s believable and powerful, I would venture to say that there are very few actions characters might commit that could not be depicted as understandable and sympathetic, even if we might react differently in the same circumstances.
Yes, there are times when we read stories where we simply can’t accept the motivations of the characters for doing what they do. The “too stupid to live” heroine who continually makes bad choices ends up annoying us rather than making us sympathize with her. In some cases, the writer may not have done a good enough job of setting out motivations. In other cases, no matter how well an author depicts a character’s motivation there will be readers who won’t accept the character’s actions, because readers always view things through their own filters of experience and values. Some readers have said they have zero tolerance for books where a character cheats on a spouse or partner. Everybody has their own “hot buttons.”
Are there things you just could never accept a hero or heroine doing no matter what their motivation?