Now, to clarify ahead of time; I'm quite aware that compelling doesn't necessary equal sympathetic and vice versa. That being said, here is the dilemma.

There's a character that I intend to write who is an antihero, both in the classical Greek sense (highly flawed and not always successful in his endeavours) and in the modern sense (morally ambiguous). Despite this, I'd prefer that the readers of my novel retain sympathy for this man; not necessarily want him to attain his goals, but at the very least hope that he's okay by the end of the story.

However, one key trait that he has which, while it makes sense in-universe, would alienate a standard modern reader pretty quickly. His day-job involves information gathering and retention, a kind of historian/scholar/spymaster hybrid, and while the story isn't about his day-job, he has a clear history of torturing people (and commanding his underlings to do the same).

It's clear he doesn't derive pleasure from this, and occasionally he's tormented by his memories of his attempts to train a torture-master to essentially 'take the blood off his hands'. Despite this, throughout the story, he doesn't come to regret having to torture people (though he does acknowledge the mental hoops he has to jump through to make torturing a man acceptable at all).

In-universe, this makes sense; he's just doing his job, and while he wrestles with the terrible side of it, ultimately he can't afford to angst about it every moment when his employers will need him for it just as much after the story as they will before it. He's not defined by his ability to torture people, it's just part of a skillset in his line of work.

Out-of-universe, however, I'd say the average reader might not be too inclined to root for a mostly unrepentant torturer, regardless of his motives and context, just as one isn't inclined to sympathise with an Auschwitz guard. He's not some vigilante performing 'just torture' (though I don't think any form of torture is just, but that's a moral quandary that's neither here nor there), it's just... a facet of his life.

His ultimate arc involves him learning to become a leader in his search for a missing child, and if anything, he learns to stop apologising for his morally questionable actions rather than becoming more regretful. His arc is about growing a sense of resolve in spite of acknowledging his flawed nature.

My question is thus:

What lines can a character cross while maintaining a reader's sympathy in the modern age?

Ideas that I have on the topic:

  • Clarifying a lack of malice behind a character's actions neutralises a character's unsavoury qualities, but doesn't necessarily endear a person to them.
  • Having the character angst over their own 'monstrosity' can endear a reader, but can just as easily clash with the setting and/or become tedious to a reader with a low tolerance for melodrama.
  • A sympathetic goal is oftentimes more important than the person pursuing them.

What are you guys' thoughts on the matter?

  • 2
    There is a character in the BBC tv series Versailles that is the Head of the Police. In charge with torturing and spying and figuring who done what. The things he has to do is so against the modern thoughts on nearly everything related to human decency and due process, but he was one of my favourite characters. You sympathised and rooted for him even while being in shock over some of his actions in the name of the king (especially near the end of the final third season). The way the writers of the show explored his reasoning/morals etc was subtle (mostly) but very well executed. – EveryBitHelps Aug 10 at 10:15
  • @EveryBitHelps Yeah, these kinds of characters are the ones I wanted to talk about. Do you think there's a line that can be crossed? – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 10:41
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    Well. Spoiler alert. He literally impaled an innocent man in the middle of a street in Paris...I think if the action is out of character for your antihero, then it could be a step to far. But seeing as He was still incharacter and following the King's orders (being loyal to the crown), it wasn't a step too far. I hated the action, and that he had done it but I could also see that it wasn't something he wanted or relished doing. It was an event that lead onto further character development. – EveryBitHelps Aug 10 at 10:52
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    So you believe there are no lines? That's what I'm leaning towards; there's no line as long as it's competently written. But I'm interested to see what other opinions are out there. – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 10:56
  • 3
    Have you seen 24? Jack Baur's not even really the antihero; he's the straight-up hero and he tortures people. Or Game of Thrones? Jaime Lannister sleeps with his sister and pushes a small child out a window, crippling him, and he's one of the more sympathetic characters in the series. – Azuaron Aug 10 at 15:52
up vote 16 down vote accepted

To me, the line you cannot cross is your hero intentionally harming an innocent for their personal pleasure (or irrational anger); that includes not just adults and children but dogs and pets.

Raping an innocent girl, smothering an infant for the fun of it, kicking a friendly dog in the face, all of these are worse than torturing an enemy combatant for information, or killing somebody that is otherwise innocent, but say working for or protecting an evil dictator. Those that protect and serve villains, no matter how innocent they look, are (with some gray areas) fair game.

For the MC, the point is evil intent (against innocents) and/or evil pleasure or other reward; those must be absent.

Let me present you with a good and moral surgeon out for dinner with his wife. A terrible car accident occurs; an overturned car is burning, a child is trapped in it, with a crushed arm. To save the child, the surgeon crawls into this burning car and amidst the flames he amputates the child's arm at the elbow using a steak knife, without anesthetic, with a fully conscious and screaming child trying to fight him. He succeeds in this endeavor, and escapes the flames with the child in his arms.

But he will not be perceived as evil for cutting off a child's arm with a steak knife while the child is screaming, he did NOT do it with evil intent, and gets no joy from doing it, he truly believed it just had to be done to save the child's life, and secure a less horrific future for the child's parents (versus watching their child burn to death).

Your anti-hero must be like the surgeon, truly believing the torture he commits is for the greater good and there is no viable alternative. He can be haunted by mistakes and feel enormous guilt for the pain he has caused innocents, but when he does, he will have to console himself with being fed wrong information that led him to innocents, and believe he did what he truly believed at the time just had to be done.

  • 3
    Yeah, agreed. Pointless sadism is where sympathy evaporates; clarifying that someone isn't sadistic doesn't necessarily make a character sympathetic, but it does stop them being irredeemable. – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 12:07
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    A Clockwork Orange shows all of these to be conditional. But then, subverting this was part of the genius of that novel. (There are other novels that also pull this off successfully.) – Konrad Rudolph Aug 10 at 15:34
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    @KonradRudolph I think literary geniuses are free to work their magic as they please, and are unlikely to consult this site anyway. I am more focused on the 99.99%. – Amadeus Aug 10 at 15:41

The breaking point will be different for different readers, because it all comes down to what we can learn from the character. If we can genuinely put ourselves in the character's place, we'll have empathy for him, even if we abhor his actions. But if he neither regrets them nor learns from them, that may make this too morally wearisome for most readers.

I actually have a similar dilemma in my own current manuscript. My main character has several unattractive traits, of which one of the most noticeable is his (mild) racism. Over the course of the book, he "learns better" to a certain extent, but he never really directly faces his racism specifically, nor is he "punished" for it --that's just not his main story arc. As with your backstory, his moral flaw is in there largely because I think it makes him more authentic to his setting.

Here are the things I'm doing to mitigate this: One, it's important that the book itself not condone or celebrate his attitudes. It's one thing to have an immoral character, it's an entirely different thing to have an immoral book. Two, he does end the book a better person, with better attitudes, even if it isn't the main theme. Three, there are voices in the book to question and challenge him on this specific point. Four, his story arc does revolve around him learning to be a better person, and suffering for the consequences of his flaws, even if that isn't the specific flaw he suffers for. Finally, it gives me an opportunity in the book to offer some subtle commentary on racism and its costs, even if that isn't directly visible to the characters themselves. I think these are all strategies you could apply successfully as well. You can use the book to help the reader understand viscerally why torture is wrong, even if the character never consciously grasps the lesson.

These are the factors that influence where the line is. It will be floating, depending on context. The following would increase reader sympathy, given a morally dubious main character:

  1. Motivation - Give the character a compelling reason for their reprehensible actions.

  2. Information - Create a scenario where the bad actions are the result of misinformation the character receives.

  3. Comparison - make other worse characters to compare your character against. You can even make your main character antagonistic to them.

  4. Feedback - produce negative repercussions for your main character's bad behavior.

  5. Enjoyment - as other answers have noted, a character that enjoys doing bad things has severely damaged relatability.

  6. Flaws - a subset of (1), your character may have tragic or otherwise blameless reasons for being morally flawed.

  7. Context - maybe your main character's bad actions are, relative to other options, far superior. The executioner who kills torture victims may personally loathe their work, but consider himself to be a merciful figure.

  8. The victim - make the victims even worse people, a subset of (3). We root for Dexter not because he's a murderer, but because his targets are (arguably) acceptable targets of violence.

  • I agree with most of your points, and I can answer them for each with regards to my own character. The only one I disagree with is (6), as I don't think tragic backstories necessarily excuse reprehensible actions (it also has the weird implication that people who go through trauma are doomed to be assholes) – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 18:50
  • With regards to fulfilling those criteria, respectively, (1) to gain information on military enemies, (2) under the mistaken belief that they'll talk better with torture, (3) which is to stop people that would rape and pillage his city, (4) however he's mistrusted by people who know he tortures, (5) but he sees it as part of his job, (6) he's from a broken family (see how this doesn't fit the others?), (7) the people he's torturing won't be convinced to surrender and thus need defeating soundly to be stopped, and (8) half the time he's torturing intra-city criminals to get info on bigger ones. – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 18:53
  • Funnily, even (8) falls somewhat flat if you don't believe in vengeance-based-morality (what I alluded to with my expressing of the belief that there's no 'just torture'), but your answer is still solid in terms of reader likeability. Do you think there are any lines that cannot be crossed? – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 18:54
  • @matthew dave to be perfectly clear, its very possible that none of the above actually impact the culpability of a MC. To your point, even bad information, good intentions, or a tragic backstory may not matter one iota to whether someone is justified. But what they do is allow us to understand them, or potentially not-hate them. As far as lines: I try not to think in terms of binaries (good or bad). I much more like spectrums where we can rank the relative qualities of things (better or worse). This also gets tricky in that I think there are many things that can't be assigned moral value – user49466 Aug 10 at 23:00
  • For example: if someone does something horrific, and I mean truly reprehensible, but then spends, literally a thousand years saving others...does that make up for that one act? I don't think these things can even be thought of like that. I don't think that "good points" erase "bad points", and rather think that people are complex and f-ed up, and am more likely to consider where they are in the present, and how they attempt (or not) to be decent people – user49466 Aug 10 at 23:03

As long as you find your character sympathetic, I think you are fine.

However, here are some basic advice to advice build a sympathetic character:

  • Make him suffer. We don't like to see someone in pain and thus, even if the character is a bad guy, we weel feel sorry for is suffering.
  • To continue with the previous point, the more evilish the character, the more he must suffer. The pain he feel must be too much compared to his sins. The reader must think "I don't like him, but I won't wish that on anyone".
  • You might want to give him a moral guidance, he will seem more human.
  • And final point, it's better if the reader understand the action of the character. Even if there reason for acting are "wrong".

I will finish by an example:

In the beginning of "Game Of Thrones", I hated Cersei and Jaime Lannister. Know, I love them both. Even though they wanted and almost succeed in killing Brandon Stark, a child. And even thought Cersei blow up an entire church with every one inside. But I understood there action and they both did suffer.


Edit in response to commentary :

For me, a character can do awful and terrible actions and still be sympathetic. The only limit is in the author abillity to make the reader understand why this horrible monster is not so horrible after all.

In fact, I do love to take Disney vilan and "transforme" them to make them more likeable ("they have this terrible past and this is why they act like that". Or, "the hero is the actual vilan and the 'vilan' just act in self-defence").

To me, the only limit is "political". I would never allow myself to fell sympathy for Hitler. If I read something that might put me there, I will stop reading. But I will do that because I disagree with the message being send, not because of the character action.

As long as your message doesn't hurt your audiance, there is no such thing as an "no return line". If the message is all right with me, I will have no problem building/reading a likeable Hitler-like character. He will still be a monster, but one you feel sorry for.

Note: I'm not sure you can send a right message with a likeable Hitler-like character, but that's not the question.

To summarize: what ever action your character do, it will always be possible to make him sympathetic (which doesn't mean you should, but that's an other issue).


Edit 2:

Now that I think of it, my real issue with trying to make Hitler sympathetic is the fact that I'm convince he did not suffer enought (I don't say I wish he had suffer more, just that, if he had, i might have feel more sympathy for him). And, if you have to make thinks up to convince me otherwise, it will juste feel wrong.

However, I once heard of a man sentence to death who suffer a great deal during several hours because they were unable to kill him properly. I don't know what this man did (probably killed people), but I did feel sympathy for him. In my opinion, he did not deserve to suffer like that.

Edit 3:

Let's take a practical example (I'm not going to actually write it because I'm not that good with english):

Imagine hell exist and Hitler is in it. Now, imagine that the devil (or Hitler himself) is explinning to you how Hitler is torture and how he will be torture for the rest of eternity. Now, imagine that you have every detail. That you know his nails get ripped off before he is skinned alived but cannot die nor pass out. All of this is awfully painfull and he have to re-live it day after day (he is magically cured every night). To make the matter worse, after being cured, he have to wait for an undetermined amount of time before the torture start again. He is there, dreading for it to start but wishing it would so that he could be "rid of it" for the day. We can also imagine that, the longuer he wait without beging torture, the more painfull it will be.

Now, I think that if you have this kind of description in a well written still, in some point, you will feel compassion for the man. Whatever this person have done, you will just wish that they won't being torture anymore. You will finally fell sympathetic for Hitler (dead Hitler, but still Hitler).

  • Weird, even though I've happily thrown the character through the wringer, I'd never thought that was about building sympathy, but rather making his arc compelling. I hadn't thought of it in terms of pulling double duty, even though it's obvious in hindsight. Nicely spotted. – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 9:14
  • Also, do you think there are any lines of no return where modern audiences simply cannot sympathise with a character? – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 9:38
  • @MatthewDave : I respond in an "edit". It was a difficult question and I had an hard time saying what I wanted to. Hope I was clear (I'm not a native english speaker so it's hard for me). – Noon Aug 10 at 10:39
  • So for you, the line is drawn when direct parallels are made with reality. That's an interesting stance to take. I don't entirely agree, but I can see the logic behind it. It's akin to when a joke is 'too soon' or 'too real'. – Matthew Dave Aug 10 at 10:42
  • @MatthewDave: I responded in a new edit (I'm new here and don't know if you got a notification when I edit). – Noon Aug 10 at 14:26

This is a very interesting question that due to the severity of his wrongs I would suggest going to a principle seen in much of Al Pacino's acting and of course in the main character Alex from Clockwork Orange. Also potentially consider Portrait of Dorian Grey.

Reader's ability to forgive a character often comes from understanding the circumstances of why a character is doing something evil, even if they don't feel it is justified, and something happening to that character that forces them out of their state. When a character like Alex is brainwashed, or Dorian Grey is forced to confront his use of people in a young love he had, it causes the reader to feel bad for the villain even though he/she had it coming. Sympathizing with a villain is what makes us human. If we felt no empathy for a villain who is experiencing genuine pain, we'd be a lot like them, because any wrong doing could be justified if you can find the wrong in others.

Taking away choice in a situation is a fantastic way to gain your readers sympathy. When your villain is corner and the threat to their safety or life is high, it is soul crushing. There is an innate desire to watch the villain go down, but on equal stronger footing to the hero so that there is a sense of justice and achievement in the take down. When the villain is cornered and weak, it becomes a cheap justice, and a lot of character changing can happen in the moment to redeem the character, or immobilize the character indefinitely.

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