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I've been writing fan fiction for 7+ years, in an attempt to weed out the beginner mistakes and know what works. In one of my fan fictions, the main character failed to make the right choice. The readers let me know that, while they found the choice fully justified, they still didn't like it. They didn't sympathize with the character's choice.

Reader sympathy is something the protagonist needs. The tale is (generally) about the protagonist, so it makes sense that the reader should want to read about him. You generally want to steer clear of things which decrease reader sympathy for the protagonist.

My question is this: assuming that the protagonist has to make the wrong choice in order for the plot to keep moving forwards, how do I maintain reader sympathy? I've included below a synopsis of the choice in my fan fiction, as an example.


The zombie apocalypse has happened. The main character, Mike, was trapped atop a tall building, waiting for evacuation, as the undead pounded on the doors to the roof. he barely made it out in time. His mother did not. The undead burst onto the roof, and Mike watched as his mother, with some others, fled to another door and descended into the dark building in an effort to escape them. The transport took off with Mike inside, and he never saw his mother again.

Now, two months later, Mike has gotten himself assigned to a mission to retrieve vital machinery from the zombie-infested lands. The crew he is a part of will be flying in a SETEV, a highly intelligent computer-controlled aircraft. Mike has a program which will allow him to hack the computer, and take the SETEV to where his mother was last seen. He intends to rescue her.

Up to this point, there is no evidence that Mike's mother has been killed or is still alive. Mike refuses to give up hope on her, and stubbornly maintains that she must be alive.

Because Mike needs to ensure escape for himself and his mother, his program will hack the SETEV to remain in place and await their return. This will put the rest of the crew in danger from the undead.

Mike now has a choice: go through with his plan to save his mother, or accept that she is dead, and keep his fellow crewmates safe.

He decides to go through with the plan, jeopardizing not only the lives of the crew, but also the mission itself, which is vital to the survivors.

At this point, my readers agreed that what Mike did was human nature, but believed he should have made the other choice. While they still sympathized with him due to other factors, they disliked his decision. What can I do to prevent that?

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Readers enjoy moral dilemmas they can identify with, because it helps them form their own moral intuitions. But a dilemma must seem balanced in order to be compelling. In this case, perhaps you've spent too little time establishing Mike's relationship with his mother, and too much establishing Mike's relationship with his team.

If it was my story, I'd spend some time prior to the inciting incident establishing Mike and his mother's close relationship, and how she would do anything for him. Then, in Mike's escape, highlight his cowardice in abandoning his mother to save himself --crank up the guilt. Next, the entire joining of the mission should be, from the start and made explicit to the reader, part of his plan to redeem himself by going back and saving his mother (even if, realistically, we all know she's already dead).

Once (and only once) the reader is emotionally committed to this goal, start building up the other side the dilemma, how his commander stresses the importance of following orders, how Mike, in spite of himself, grows fond of the team members that he's going to betray, how unlikely it is that his mother survived. Once you're in the moment, heighten the stakes on both sides (he glimpses what looks like his mother, he forms a romantic attachment with a teammate, he has a flashback to childhood, etc.) That way, whichever decision he makes, the reader will know why, and sympathize (even if he or she does NOT agree). Just remember, whichever way Mike chooses, there must be real --and by that, I mean emotionally real --consequences.

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People don't behave rationally all the time, and neither do characters in fiction. Your characters don't need to make the right choices all the time, they just need to make believable choices that we understand.

Spending some time on the character's motivations for taking this risk will help sell his choices to your readers. Perhaps Mike's relationship to his mother is very close, or maybe he feels guilt over something with her? Whatever the reason, he needs a motive for putting others at risk or he'll not be a very sympathetic character.

Perhaps by putting his comrades in danger Mike is, in some way, redeeming something else?

  • Also, emotional motivations are still good ones for plot purposes. A action-movie way of resolving this (and I don't suggest you do this specifically) might be to have a scene where someone else is abandoned out of necessity in the beginning of the story; later on, the character says, "I won't abandon this other person, too!" – Neil Fein Sep 23 '17 at 17:37
  • Mike's motivation is that his father believes his mother is dead, and Mike needs to prove that she is alive, both to his (now dead) father, and himself. It's an unanswered part of himself that needs resolution. I think Mike's choice was believable, but after reading your answer, it could definitely be more believable. I see your point. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 23 '17 at 17:47
  • I think the last line of this question really hits the nail on the head. The action is selfish, and there isn't much of a way around it. But what one could do is add good, selfless reasons to make the same choice. While this of course destroys Mike's dilemma, the good outweighs the bad, and reader sympathy is not lost. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 23 '17 at 23:42
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    @ThomasMyron I think this answer is strong, but that you're misinterpreting it. What Neil is talking about is emotional believability. Your description in your above comment takes a situation that has strong natural emotional resonance --Mike has a strong relationship with his mother AND feels guilty because he abandoned her to die while saving himself --and reduces it to trying to him trying to prove a point to his dad. No wonder the character feels unsympathetic. – Chris Sunami Sep 25 '17 at 15:58
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As a reader, I would have been extremely put off by Mike's behavior. Also, since I read too much fanfiction, I would have attributed this to the author making a mistake, and stopped reading. I'll try to help.

Mike is inside an aircraft. When he hacks the aircraft, it is going to go to the place his mother was last seen, instead of the mission target. The other people inside the aircraft will notice the change in course. It would be very unlikely for the SETEV to not feature a display with GPS coordinates and waypoints. So they will notice.

These people volunteered for a high-risk mission in hostile territory, which means they're not special snowflakes. In fact, they are pretty baddass. Considering what usually happens in a zombie apocalypse, it's pretty safe to assume they have shot lots of zombies in the head, and a sizable amount of non-zombie looters and such. They've seen people lose it, they've sacrificed someone to the zombie horde because they don't run fast enough. Also the lives of a lot of people depend on the mission.

Thus, Mike gets bullets shot into his kneecaps until he un-hacks the aircraft, then he gets thrown out of the airlock, and becomes a red stain on the ground. Any other outcome would break suspension of disbelief.

Suggested fix:

While going to the destination with the SETEV, they spot a chopper, or maybe another SETEV, parked on top of a high-rise building, or in the middle of a field, whatever. Mike immediately tries to convince the others to land there, because he sees the other aircraft as an opportunity to rescue his mom while not having to steal the SETEV and kill the rest of the team.

The other people will argue that it would be better to fly the newly discovered aircraft back to base, because it is a valuable resource. But they already have quite a few, so it isn't a resource worth dying for. So, when Mike pulls out his gun, they will decide that having a gunfight inside a flying aircraft isn't worth it, and drop Mike close to the aircraft.

This allows Mike to return to base with his mom and an aircraft, which is a prize of enough value that he might not be shot for treason.

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Mike's career is over either way, and his choice is selfish and self-centered.

If he can hack the SETEV, hack it in a way that forces the rest of the crew off it, then steal it, so he is the ONLY one at risk. You say "A" SETEV, surely this is not the only one. The rest of the crew can find another pilot and another SETEV, and if he happens to lose this one no biggie.

In fact Mike can program the transport to move to some safer place and return when he calls for it; or if he does not, return itself to base on the last of its fuel.

Mike has no real need to endanger anybody but himself. Then his act is no worse than some fearless soldier (in a normal war setting) stealing a jeep to go rescue his buddy captured by the enemy.

The emergency can be a hack Mike sets to make his SETEV seem unoperational and/or dangerous, so the crew leaves; he tells them get out, get out, I'll try to keep it from blowing up! Then when they are all out, close the doors and take off.

To redeem Mike, whether or not he is successful, let him discover (perhaps by rescuing his mother that has discovered some special knowledge) something ELSE that can be used against the zombies.

  • They are a day's journey from any safe zone, so dropping off the crew is unfortunately not an option. The program Mike uses to hack the SETEV is range-sensitive - it only fires when the building is close. One thing I did was try to identify and close all such loop-holes. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 23 '17 at 23:39
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    Saving the day while doing something selfish doesn't make Mike unselfish, just lucky. Fortunately for us, it does make for a good story. – Neil Fein Sep 24 '17 at 2:12
  • @ThomasMyron But you didn't, you just imposed an irrational condition on the hacking program. It is like saying he's a great hacker, but not on Saturdays. The point wasn't to drop off the crew, but to leave without them: Perhaps he can find a way to do that without hacking, and just good old deception, like starting a fire, or pulling a gun, or releasing a stink bomb that makes them so nauseous they must leave: But he has a gas mask. You're the author, if you wrote yourself into a corner, then write a window near the corner, so you can make a dramatic leap to escape it. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 24 '17 at 9:15
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Remember that, from Mike's perspective his mother is still alive.

And the story should be told from Mike's perspective -- even if the narrative is third person.

So your story leading up to the rescue attempt cannot dwell on anything that might be construed as evidence to believe the mother is dead. Because the story is an account of Mike's mental history and his mind will simply not allow him to entertain that fact.

So come up with some reasons someone might believe this -- small and bad reasons of course* -- but reasons someone could focus on to the exclusion of all else. There will always be reasons for and against. Mike will focus on one and ignore the others.

Maybe there was a similar event where a group of survivors holed up for months or years in an abandoned hospital. Devote some time to Mike poring over the specifics of the hospital: Exactly what let them survive so long. What does the hospital have in common with the other building?

Make sure to include loads of oblique references to groups not surviving for so long. But the narrative cannot dwell on them, because Mike dismisses them immediately.

Maybe the hospital story is just a rumour. Maybe Mike never delves deep enough to discover how unbelievable the story really is. Maybe the others are too busy running for their lives to point that out.

All in all, whatever Mike's decision is, it should seem like the only reasonable choice to a reader who is not reading too closely. Mike feels the same way about his decision himself.

*A way to do this is to imagine the problem of zombies is replaced by a smaller problem (mosquitos?), coming up with reasons in that context, then stretching them to apply to the real context.

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You could approach the problem by making the other choice less appealing. Can't you make his crew-mates less sympathetic to the reader? Or something like this.

Alternatively:

(The latest iteration of star trek premiered last night. There was much rejoicing in our household.)

In this, the first episode, Number One mutinied and it was clearly the wrong choice. The writers made her choice work (to an extent) by:

  1. Spelling out the childhood trauma that drove her choice and

  2. Causing the mutiny to fail. After it failed, it became obvious that she had, after all, been right.

Maybe have Mike make that choice and fail, but then he ends up on that course again anyway because it becomes clear that it was correct. Like, they thwart his program and go to get the machinery, only to learn that they needed his mother to complete their mission.

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