Recently someone in a writing group asked a question that amounted to “if my character is sort of racist, and doesn’t really change her views by the end, will readers still enjoy the book?”
The general consensus answers seemed to be “I would read that, go for it!” and “we like complicated characters!” However, I had a rather a few more reservations. I thought on this, and thought on it some more. You see, reader, I keep hearing people say that they like dark characters because they’re more realistic, more interesting, more fun. Your character can be a cold blooded killer, they say, a rapist, a racist, an overall bad-dude, and we will read it because we like flaws. Does the character have to change, and realize the error of their ways? Nope, they say, because in real life people don’t change, so do your worst!
And, after thinking and thinking, I decided I wasn’t sure if I really believed that this was the case. Because despite what people in the writing group said, most successful anti-heroes have one thing in common, and that is that they manage, on some level, to get me to care about them. Perhaps they don’t have some grand epiphany, during which they realize the error of their way and turn over that new leaf, perhaps they aren’t full of remorse, but on some level, they do struggle. The nature of these struggles may change — some may struggle with their own actions, some may struggle with their own nature, some may struggle with their own desires. Things are never too easy for these characters, and they do not avoid consequences for their actions. A character who struggles, and who brings us along for the ride, may be allowed a great many more sins than a character who blithely hurts others with no self-awareness or consequences.
So, are there any lines a protagonist cannot cross? The short answer seems to be a resounding “no.” Readers seem to have an almost infinite reserve of forgiveness for the skillfully created character. The longer answer, however, is, it depends, and perhaps, certain lines should only be crossed carefully, and by writers who are certain they have the skill to pull it off without triggering any proverbial land-mines.
Murder, for instance, seems relatively easy to forgive, particularly if the murder is done in self-defense or self-preservation, or in the name of protecting the protagonist’s loved ones. We can even forgive those who kill innocents, if the killer is say, an assassin (all in a day’s work?) or a soldier. Sometimes we can even forgive serial killers – Dexter anyone? But even our most murder-y protagonists have one thing in common, and that is that they understand and ultimately accept the consequences of their choices. Perhaps sometimes their mental health deteriorates – Tony Soprano famously sought out therapy for his job related stress and depression, and clearly struggled with balancing his life in the Mafia with his role as a father and husband. Sometimes they struggle to find meaning in an uncaring world. Our quintessential anti-hero, Meursalt in Camus’s The Stranger, who murdered someone in cold blood for no real reason whatsoever, is someone who feels frustration with the meaninglessness of life, and despair that no matter what he does, or how he feels, the universe is ultimately indifferent. The murder he commits isn’t excusable, but his despair is relate-able. Perhaps what it comes down to is that killing, is a line that many people can, on some level, imagine themselves crossing given the circumstances. When characters offer up mitigating circumstances, or even feelings of turmoil, we are able to accept these in a way, and offer up our sympathy, even if we may still condemn the act.
There are other lines, however, that we have a harder time sympathizing with, particularly if we have a certain sort of faith in our own moral alignment. Rape, for instance, is hard to imagine as being motivated by anything other than pure selfish desire (in fact, literary theorist William Flesch suggests that our very interest in a narrative arises primarily from our desire to ascertain whether each character has inherently selfish or altruistic motives for their driving action). Unlike murder, rape is singularly unjustifiable, and it is nearly impossible to muster any sort of sympathy for a rapist, no matter how conflicted the rapist may be. And yet, Alex, the anti-hero protagonist of Burgess’ seminal novel, A Clockwork Orange, is a violent serial-rapist who knows, intellectually, that what he is doing is wrong, and yet does it anyway. While we do not forgive Alex, the way his “reform” is handled does make us pity him. Burgess’ first person narrative invites the reader into the world of a severely disturbed young man, a child really, carefully building trust between the narrator and the reader. This makes it hard for us to witness Alex’s torturous punishment, and on some level we may even find ourselves wishing he could somehow escape, even if it meant a return to his old ways. Reading A Clockwork Orange is an ultimate exercise in cognitive dissonance for any thoughtful reader – we know we should despise Alex, but somehow we don’t, not quite.
Violence against children is similarly hard to forgive – children, after all, are particularly vulnerable and our very nature tells us to protect them, not hurt them. There is something repulsive to the soul about people who hurt children, and it is no surprise that, when you read news stories involving deliberate (and sometimes even accidental) harm to children, the comments sections are often filled with people who firmly believe that the deepest pits of hell are still too good for someone who would hurt a child. Is harm to a child a line that cannot be crossed? Not every author seems to think so. George R.R. Martin famously had incestuous twin Jaime Lannister push a child out of a window, and then later went on to write for Jaime perhaps one of fantasy’s greatest redemption arcs, taking a universally loathed character and turning him into someone we actually sympathize with and even root for. Martin’s Jaime is revealed to be a broken man who has lost his faith in the institutions and people to whom he was previously devoted – including his sister-lover, the woman who inspired the act of attempted Child-murder. Once a idealistic and devoted young knight, Jaime was eventually universally reviled for what he considered his greatest act – murdering the abusive, murderous mad king. Later, Lannister’s devil-may-care attitude is revealed to be a façade hiding a much deeper sense of self-loathing. The further Jaime grows, the more he distances himself from his sister, the more his regrets for his past actions begin to surface, and Jaime himself begins to hope that he might regain his lost honor. It is hard not to sympathize with this character who actively wants to do better and who tries to distance himself from the people and mindsets that caused him to lose his altruism.
Indeed, perhaps in the hands of a skillful enough writer, there truly is no line that cannot be crossed. And indeed, one harsh reality many of us writers must face is that sometimes we aren’t quite ready, as writers, to tackle the book we want to write. When an amateur writer in writer’s group says that she’s writing an unrepentant racist, a child murderer, or a rapist, my first reaction is generally to cringe rather than say “go for it!” While it is not out of the realm of possibility that the writer may manipulate the reader’s emotions so skillfully that even the most hateful bastards will be redeemable, it is unlikely that an amateur writer will accomplish this feat. More likely than not the writer might succeed in creating a hateful bastard, but will fail in making this person sympathetic enough for the reader to actually give a damn whether said bastard succeeds or fails, lives or dies.
Sympathy isn’t about likability. Characters do not have to be likable, but in order for the reader to invest in the story, we do have to care about what happens to them. At the heart of every story is a character with a goal, and certain people or circumstances that get in the way of that goal. So, how are you, writer, going to make readers care about whether or not your hateful baster gets his way or not? Because if the readers do not care, they will not finish your book. And while you do not have to create likable characters, you do have to create characters that are worthy of our care – in other words, sympathetic. What makes your characters worthy of our care? Do we see some small flicker of humanity deep in their broken and tortured souls? Do we simply pity them? Does their humorous and personable voice make them likable against all odds? When creating your unrepentant racist or your serial killer protagonist or your heartless assassin, these are the questions the writer must ask.
Further, you must ask yourself, with all the humility you can muster, is this the right story for me to write right now? It is perfectly alright to save your more ambitious stories for later in your writing experience, when your skills are more developed, and when you have a firmer grasp on how you might do these characters justice. Whatever you choose, know that there will be people who will find your characters actions to be beyond the pale no matter what, and that all of your hard work at redemption will, occasionally, all be for naught. But, then, as my co-blogger Bruce often remarks, no one ever said this writing stuff was supposed to be easy.