Friday, September 23, 2022

Writing the Unsympathetic Narrator--So What If Your Readers Don't Like Them?

Last week, I talked about false beliefs, how they create character change and growth. As a character in fiction or memoir faces the limitations of their beliefs about a situation, themselves, or the world, they often find a bigger view. That gives them the opportunity to change, to learn stuff, to become a more authentic person.

Life is life, though. The opposite is also (sadly, often) true. We see the limits but we continue to embrace them. We may clasp even more tightly, fearing the unknown more than we detest our current situation. Character in fiction and memoir do this too, even more so. They become what's called unsympathetic.

Many writing books and many writing teachers have advised me to lean towards the more sympathetic character--if I want readers to engage in the story. I've found this sometimes true. If a character is really awful, or very stuck, and it's hard to get behind them, readers can detach from the story.

I suffered from this, as a younger writer. I tried to make my cast as likeable as possible. Sometimes, this made them cardboard cutouts, unreal. I'd get feedback like, Doesn't she ever get mad? Readers, I learned are equally frustrated with characters that seem too good.

As I grew in my character-writing skills I began to buck this sympathetic-character rule. I wanted to write from the point of view of a man who is deserting his ill wife to have an affair--a loathsome choice, certainly. I happened to be lucky enough to take a class with Josip Novakovitch and I workshopped a scene from this character's story. Josip encouraged me to push the darkness even further, find out the why behind this character's decision. Getting that kind of permission from a writer I respected allowed me to get to know this character much more deeply, and he ended up in two of my novels, successfully, I feel.

Another writing teacher, more recently, was strong in her belief that unsympathetic narrators are very worthwhile in literature. The key, she told me, is to make them believable and show them in action, rather than just in their heads. One of my female characters in my forthcoming second novel, A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, has plenty of action at the start of the novel. "It would help to know more of what she's running from and to," this instructor told me. Other readers had said they had trouble getting into this character because she was fairly unconscious of the effects of her bad decisions until the final third of the book. By inserting more of her backstory, all that changed. She was still not entirely likeable, but my readers didn't disengage.

If you follow the theory of false belief driving a character's growth (discussed in the blog last week), the unsympathetic character holds fast to their false belief until point 4. There are few hints of change ahead. This becomes authentic and believable only if we know, as my instructor said, what the character is running from and to in their life.

Authenticity may come late in the game (the story) to these folks. That's OK. They can keep us readers engaged anyway. We will love to be frustrated with them. We will hang in there just on the off chance that they'll finally face themselves.

And unless they are truly tragic, they will.

My male character who was tempted into an affair while his wife was ill became one of my favorite narrators. But only after I explored his psyche and learned why he was so stuck, so unable to see the effects of his actions. I think Josip would be pleased with how he turned out.

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