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February 2017

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Sympathy for the character

I'm reading one of those books where, character-wise, my sympathies do not seem to be aligned with the author's. That is, I like the character I'm not supposed to like a heck of a lot more than I like the two characters I am supposed to like.

As an author, I'm naturally interested in how this happens, what the author has done to alienate me from Characters A and B and defend Character C, when clearly I'm "supposed" to feel the other way around. Here's what I've identified so far:

--Character C is more passionate than either A or B. Both A and B have drifted along, with vague ambitions that they've never really pursued, doing a lot less than they're capable of. C has smaller ambitions (for which C is criticized by both of the other characters), but at least C has pursued those ambitions with zeal. The thing that A wants most, A has never even taken the slightest step to pursue (and somehow sees this as C's fault).

--C is sort of quirky and hapless and, early on, is placed in a vulnerable and quite funny situation (from which A is completely absent). This was the start of my sympathetic connection to C. Right after this scene, A does something deliberately mean-spirited toward C, which made me dislike A. I think this act by A is where my sympathies were most firmly channeled into the pro-C anti-A camp.

--Early in the book, Characters A and C have a difference of opinion over a subjective matter. The book immediately implies (and continues to suggest) that Character A is "right" and C's views are pathetic. But as a reader, I'm unconvinced. Since this is a matter of opinion, I don't see how either of them can be "right," or why C's opinion isn't just as valid as A's. This perceived unfairness toward C shored up my protectiveness toward C. And at one point, C has a chance to thwart A's expression of A's differing views, but instead enables A to find a wider audience for those views.

--There's a scene where A blames C for something that was under A's control, not C's control. After several pages of fuming at C, A only seems vaguely aware that maybe the true blame lies elsewhere.

--C does some things that benefit B, but B has only contempt for C.

--Both A and C deceive each other. C confesses immediately. A punishes C for C's deception, but continues in A's own deception.

Maybe I'm wrong and the author is planning a twist; maybe I will find out in the last third of the book that C is supposed to be one of the good guys, and not a buffoon after all. So far I think not. (But if that happens, then this author is a genius at properly manipulating my sympathies.) Overall, though, whichever way this book goes, this has been a useful exercise in allowing me to see what can make characters likable and unlikable. In this case, I see that when a character is treated meanly and unfairly by other characters, the so-called justification of "but that character deserves it for being really boring/nerdy/annoying" doesn't always work, and the unfairness may backfire, leading the reader to sympathize with the supposedly boring/nerdy/annoying one.


I often find I like the secondary characters more than the protagonists, and like you with this book, sometimes it's the characters I'm probably not meant to like that much. There feels more leeway to build up the secondary characters' backstory and imprint your own ideas onto them - possibly this has something to do with it.

Either way, I guess the author would be happy that you're reading the book anyway! :D
Later in the book, the author is rounding out the characters more and softening the biases, so whew.

I do have a weakness for secondary characters. When I was little, I especially tended to side with them over the main characters, or even to side w/ antagonists over protagonists.
Ha, this sounds almost like Downton Abbey and one reason I stopped watching it. I feel like the show wants me to like Mary more than Edith but to me, Edith consistently comes across as the middle child who is less pretty than her sisters, unappreciated, dumped on, and unlucky in love, and yet she keeps pursuing noble goals with little support. Characters within the show are always talking about her like she's horrible, though. She doesn't really do anything horrible, except spread a piece of gossip about Mary, but considering what an uber bitch Mary is to her throughout, I don't blame her for having no loyalty! This whole thing annoyed me even more than the dramatic killings-off.
I haven't seen DA, but I know this phenomenon happens a lot with TV shows too.

Just telling us that a character is supposed to be likable (or unlikable) doesn't work; we need to be shown.

A variant on this phenomenon is the couple that the author or the show's creators obviously want to end up together, but that I wish would stay apart!