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I've created a manipulative sort of protagonist, one who enjoys mind games, blackmail, systematically destroying people who've wronged her, that sort of thing.

I personally find her very interesting, but I'm not sure how I should write her such that an audience would connect with her - how to make a character who acts in this manner be sympathetic rather than abhorrent to the reader, and not in a fake "pet the dog" kind of manner either. How could I go about doing that?

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The core of this problem may be the misconception that the reader needs to identify with a character. That is oft repeated, but simply not true. A story creates an experience. One way to enter into that experience is to identify yourself with one of the characters in that experience. But it is not the only way, nor is it a necessary way. We are (some of us, at least) interested in people other than ourselves. In some cases we enjoy their company without wishing to be them. In some cases we rubberneck the disaster that is their lives the way we rubberneck an accident on the highway.

So, don't get bogged down by the idea that the reader has to identify with the character. It is enough, and often better, that they simply regard the character with fascination or even horror. Make them interesting and we will follow them like we follow the kind of celebrity trainwrecks we would never want to be like but, for some morbid reason, can never seem to quite avert our eyes from.

  • You are correct about identifying with the character, but that word was never used in the @NoFicByHalves question. Connecting is quite different (I could never identify with, say, Gregory House, but I could relate to him with much sympathy). – Lew Mar 23 '17 at 13:33
  • Mark Baker, yes! I am always interested in people other than me, and worlds other than mine. – Numi Apr 3 '17 at 9:20
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I think you'll admit that some part of this character should be abhorrent, but that the interesting space would be a reader feeling that but still identifying with the character. "Sympathetic" might not be what you actually want.

The way I'd go about it would be to have the character be in surroundings or situations that are familiar to my target audience. If my character was dealing with the issues that occur in high school and was that sort of person and my audience was people in high school, then a certain amount of sympathy will come through.

The other thing you could try to do is basically have this character do the things we would do, but would never be brave enough to do, skilled enough to accomplish, or which the reader would avoid to preserve their image. Basically, you want to get your character into the space a comedian inhabits. Dealing with the almost entirely familiar, but playing with the taboos that people shy away from and are uncomfortable with.

The other would be a solid internal justification that a reader can understand for this character and why they're doing this. Thievery is awful when it happens to us, but we've all played with the idea of "I'm stealing bread so my family doesn't starve". This is largely about getting the perspective. If you're character does awful things for good reasons, then people accept them. To be honest, this is going to be harder to pull off with how you've described your character so far.

On some level these characteristics are unacceptable. Research avenues that might be productive are: comedians, persuasive-yet-awful-leaders, and anti-heros.

Good luck!

  • Good advice, thank you! Anti-hero was basically what I was shooting for, just wanted to avoid 'terrible character with authorial armor' kind of thing. – NoFicByHalves Mar 22 '17 at 21:10
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    "solid internal justification" Is the key here. Le Compte de Monte Cristo systematically destroyed his enemies, yet he was a hero, because we felt they deserved it. – papidave Mar 22 '17 at 22:53
  • You keep referring to a comedian as an example of such protagonist. I am at a loss of comprehension here. Care to elucidate? When a comedian manipulated you, blackmailed you, of otherwise destroyed you or anyone you know? – Lew Mar 23 '17 at 13:22
  • Ah man, don't get me started on the wrongs Louis C.K. has done to my family. No, what I'm saying is that comedians tend to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. I think the "The Aristocrats" is probably the signature piece here to consider. Or lampooning where your taking the spit out of other people. Comedians manipulate all the time; blackmail, probably is a special case; and a good comedian will destroy and reshape your view of the world. Violating propriety is what a comedian does; an anti hero does this on another vector, but each works due to relatability. – Kirk Mar 23 '17 at 13:36
  • Pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable, violating propriety, and doing something immoral are very different things. A few decades back racial segregation was socially acceptable and proper, but it didn't make it any more moral than it is now. If a comedian made you mad or made you laugh, it is no more manipulative than a sappy movie which made you sob at the end. I am fairly sure that Louis C. K. had gained absolutely nothing by doing wrongs to your family, so it is not manipulation what he does. Comedy is just another genre of writing (stage + space for improvisation). – Lew Mar 24 '17 at 13:02
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If you want people to sympathize or identify with a character who does awful things, then the people she's doing those things to have to be worse than her. They have to deserve the manipulation and destruction.

Think of an anti-hero taking down villains. Dr. House deflating officious bureaucratic Vogler or obsessed detective Tritter, the Leverage team ruining profiteering scammers and corrupt politicians, Sherlock insulting idiotic pathologist Anderson, Spike killing demons, that sort of thing.

We woud find her abhorrent if she's manipulating innocent people for her own gain. We'll cheer if she's manipulating a racist to expose his disgusting beliefs in public so he gets shamed and fired.

  • Conversely, I identify with my MIL who will laugh at small children who slip on the ice and fall down. Maybe not the most morally reprehensible thing imaginable, but she is not in a position of moral superiority and yet I identify with her. Because there's something beyond morality at work when you identify with people. Is _M_orality taught in humanities classes or something? This seems common, but it also seems like a crutch and incomplete explanation. – Kirk Mar 22 '17 at 22:06
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A good model for this is Wolf Of Wall St. That film (and the memoir it is based on) depicts a person who is despicable and unethical in their behavior, but captures the essence of the American dream. His philosophy is "Get Mine."

How does he connect with the audience?

1) He justifies his behavior without coming across as pretentious or condescending. “We sold garbage to garbage men…their money was better off in my pocket, I knew how to spend it better.”

2) He enjoys life in ways the audience has always wanted to.

3) He makes the people closest to him happier, stronger, and more powerful. This means he is a better friend to have. Shut up and be his friend. You'll be better off.

4) He is able to connect with his family. He has lurid conversations with his own father most of us would be afraid to.

5) He is honest about how despicable he is, and doesn't pretend to be a "good person." People with pretenses to morality are beneath him.

He is raw, unfiltered, unapologetic id.

If this doesn't appeal to you, I understand, it didn't appeal to me. But audiences appear to eat it up.

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We want to despise those who do manipulative things, but we also want to be them.

If your goal is to write someone manipulative that the audience can connect with then you are asking to write a person, not a character.

A Fictional Person

While a character follows a set archetype or "template" of sorts a person has believable unknowns. That is, the audience wonders about them.

A fictional person could reasonably have an uncle that passed, siblings they hate, or hobbies they do not get enough free time for... Even if none of that is shown.

Cersei Lannister from R.R. Martin's popular series is painted as wantonly callous, sadistic, and even crazed at later points in the TV adaption - fans of the books get peeved at this because she reveals much more human aspects of herself that the show barely even glances at (her true feelings about Robert are essentially a footnote in the show.)

The Cersei of the TV adaption is a character. In the book, she is a fictional person.

In brief: if you want a manipulative character whom the audience connects with, make certain it is reasonable to think "I wonder why they did that or what happened in their past... In fact what about their [blank?]"

Part of fiction writing is suspending the imagination. And interesting characters with unknown depths help with that.

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To add to an excellent (in my opinion) answer by @LaurenIpsum:

There might be a case when your protagonist has to manipulate/blackmail an innocent person, who had done nothing to wrong her, and yet still be forgiven by the reader–when it is done for a greater good.

First thing which comes to mind: "If you will not step forward and testify against the thug who raped you–because you are ashamed to admit it publicly–I am going to go ahead and expose your secret anyway, so it is for you to decide if you are going to be known as the person who did the right thing, or as a coward, blah-blah..."

You might also show her reluctance to resort to such method, yet having to go ahead with it, because she has no other means to achieve that greater good of putting the rapist behind bars so he could not hurt anyone else.

Try to make the reader understand the motivations of your protagonist and agree with the necessity of her actions.

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