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In situations where a character is an irredeemable and unrepentant villain (pedophile) but is just a regular everyman character in every other respect (he looks, acts, and speaking in an unremarkable way, doesn't have a dark back story, and there is no in universe attempt to justify his actions as being down to some form of trauma,) what literary factors or story telling techniques can be used to make him seem relatable to the audience who is fully aware of what they are?

The overall premise is the story of an unremarkable everyman trying to find evidence that another unremarkable everyman pretended to be a teenager online in order to entice local school children to send him indecent selfies.

Although the story features an obvious antagonist and an obvious protagonist in the traditional sense, the main character is a neighbor who knows both of them, and who acts an an audience surrogate. He sees events happening from the outside, and witnesses events rather than participating in them (he has zero agency.)

The story is viewed in hindsight after the events of the story have concluded and all the secrets have been revealed, with the main character (audience surrogate) mentally reviewing things that have already occurred trying to put the pieces that he was aware of into context.

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    Frame challenge: Do you really want the audience to relate to a character who is "an irredeemable and unrepentant villain with no attempted justification for their actions"?
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 15:27

4 Answers 4

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The Fritz Lang film M avoids directly 'rationalizing' the main character, and never shows exactly what happens between him and his victims. Instead it synchronizes the viewers to the pedo's current level of 'anxiety' over his urges.

As his anxiety builds, camera framing and editing mimic the vocabulary of suspense thrillers even though nothing is actually happening onscreen. A little girl is playing in the yard..., and then she isn't. No one else notices, but the viewer has become so aware of the rising tension that this small change in the scene feels devastating in its silence. The effect is an empathy between the pedo and the viewer who has to imagine the deed while simultaneously experiencing the thrill of the heightened moment – wondering if he'll get caught or interrupted, wondering if she will scream....

Afterwards the pacing drops, and we don't see the main character for a while. His relief is a release of our tension, but it's not 'put right'. The world takes on a darker slightly more fantastic tone . It's Fritz Lang: an underworld network of organized beggar-spies is suddenly a thing, as if we've crossed over into paranoid madness.

Later the viewer is again uncomfortably forced to empathize with the main character when he is hunted down by a mob. The film vocabulary is as a thriller, with the familiar structure of a man running from unjust persecution. He's eventually trapped and makes a passionate plea for pity, and the mob hesitates confused by his humanity and vulnerability – which is very similar to how the viewer feels at that moment.

The takeaway is that synchronizing the emotions of the reader with the experience of the problematic MC creates a kind of empathy-link. We've been through these moments 'together' sharing similar feelings and building a bond with him, even though we're not asked to forgive or redeem his behavior.

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  • I'm uncertain how to translate that to paper. I'm not certain that I could write about the urges of a pedophile building without straying into legally dubious territory. Commented Feb 28, 2023 at 20:06
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I recall an episode of CSI (couldn't tell you the name of the episode but Alan Tudyk played the character) that focused on a pedophile who's home was fire-bombed after two boys went missing in his neighborhood and one of the neighbors found his name on the sex offender registry. The CSI team has to work with him to not only find his attacker, but also because his insights into peadophiles in the area (he either knew them from the underground community he was in prior to his arrest or from his court mandated group therapy sessions). Won't spoil much of the ending, but it's a very interesting episode.

Law and Order SVU also had an episode featuring a character in his late teens, who turns himself in, confessing to a strong sexual attraction to his elementary school aged stepbrother. The SVU team has to deal with the fact that, since the teen hasn't broken any laws, they can't actually hold him for any crime or take any steps to get him the help he needs, and his parents are not helpful in the matter. Here the character is sympathetic because he hasn't done anything out of sheer force of will and is willing to take steps to remove himself from the temptation but finds that there is no support for him to do so at this stage.

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Apart from the fact that an "unrepentant villain" isn't "a regular everyman" (the average person has both a conscience and empathy and regrets hurting others as well as doing wrong), you can make characters relatable to the reader by elaborating how their psyche works: their motives, emotions (or lack thereof), convictions, etc. That is, to make a person that is unlike the reader relatable to the reader you will need to write a psychological novel that provides a portrait of the personality of that chartacter.

If you want to make a character not only relatable but likeable, you will need to go beyond that and show how a normal person (with a healthy psyche) was brought to commit an abhorrent deed through their own experiences (e.g. childhood abuse) or circumstances (e.g. the present experience of hate and ostracism).

As a side note, please do not present the common stereotype of pedophiles. Pedophiles are absolutely normal persons except for their unfortunate sexual orientation. You need to differentiate them from sadists or psychopaths who are abnormal and incapable of empathy or even enjoy the suffering of others. There are pedophile sadists or pedophile psychopaths of course, but they are extremely rare. Most sexual child abuse is not commited by pedophiles (who usually do not want to hurt the children they are sexually attracted to and therefore try to suppress their urges), but by persons suffering from mental retardation, personality disorders, psychopathy, and other mental disorders.

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  • Sorry, I wasn't clear, I meant that he doesn't look or act like a movie villain. There isn't anything obvious to mark him as one. Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 7:52
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Some techniques I have seen for other characters... Call the antagonist Adam, the protagonist Perry, the neutral narrator Noel:

  1. Have Adam somehow be “out” about his villainy—it works for the Joker! Now spreading pedophilia rather than anarchy makes the situation rather difficult. I think you could solve this with great writing and if he had not physically abused anyone yet. Imagine Adam telling Noel and Perry and everyone else in the neighborhood, "Look, I aided and abetted a priest in his abusing of kids and I therefore got put on the sex offender registry. I confessed to help him get incarcerated so I got a light sentence... but do not trust me with your children, I have betrayed your trust forever and this is my penance." And like Perry just gets obsessed about nailing this creeper, but the rest of the community treats Perry as a vindictive asshole, "look, Adam obviously hates himself, and he helped lock up a child abuser, cut him a bit of slack!"

  2. Have Adam go after other villains, like Dexter did. Noel is talking to him in prison afterwards and he says “Yeah, I solicit naked pictures of children, yes I enjoy them... But I also want to protect the children from scumbags like me with fewer scruples. I use the images to pose as these children and lure out other pedophiles, then get them arrested so they can't hurt children anymore.”

  3. Have Adam be slowly lowered into temptation like Walter White was. So Adam chose to just be asexual all his days, took all that frustration and directed it to becoming an amazing baseball player in college... then injured, life got in the way, couldn't go pro, got a crappy job. Adam’s brother Bob gets leukemia and can't coach Little League, and Noel is there when Bob prompts Adam to help. "I hate kids," Adam tells them at the batting cage. "Stinky, slimy, gross, can't be around them." But Adam reluctantly agrees, then succeeds amazingly, and is tapped to coach the high-school team for a real salary: now he's watching cheerleaders and shit. Adam discreetly takes a photo but is noticed by evil Evan, a professional dark-web child pornographer, who blackmails him into taking locker room photos. The locker room is traced back to the school by police, Evan is discovered due to his prior criminal record, but he plea-deals to stay out of maximum security prison. Evan then blackmails Adam again, says the police "didn't even get the good stuff," wants Adam to keep the business running from prison, or else he'll expose Adam’s role in the shower photos. We cheer for Adam as he siphons off enough money from the dark web business to run a prison hit on Evan: but by now Adam’s hungers are fully awakened and he can no longer stop himself and his new business.

  4. Have Adam be deeply morally confused, such that these actions seem "less bad" than something worse that Adam is staving off. You see this in some mental illness narratives. So Noel recounts seeing Adam distraught in a car, asking "hey, you okay?" and Adam explains he just drove away from a situation where he was going to make a really bad decision, and is terrified of himself right now. Noel presses for details but Adam confesses to something more socially acceptable, "I nearly firebombed my ex girlfriend's car", Noel recounting, "I remember thinking that I didn't realize Adam even had an ex-girlfriend around these parts! But I chalked it up to ignorance. Now I know the truth, on at least three separate occasions before the shit he did, Adam plotted and almost went through with kidnapping children. And the plots were really thorough and compelling. Each time he tried he had an attack of conscience, drove the hell away, and sat in the car afraid of the monsters inside of him.” Makes it seem like Adam was just trying to keep his “monsters” away, without properly excusing his actions.

  5. Recast it as love gone awry, with the sexual aspects at first suppressed. Adam's first stumble is a high school freshman named Lizzy, who pretends to be much older than she is to get into a club, where they meet-cute. But Noel notices and tells Adam how old she is and he, to his credit, cuts everything off with Lizzy right there and then. But then Lizzy becomes suicidal, so Adam starts posing as a middle-school teen Tom for a mostly innocent reason, to reach out to her and “God told me to reach out to you” and give her hope and stop her from killing herself. Lizzy is indeed comforted but says Tom isn't her romantic type. But then Tom starts to become a real persona, as other people from Lizzy's school start interacting with him, and Adam keeps it going because “adults don't understand me, only kids seem to understand!” and he starts seeking love in this ridiculous fantasy. That's when the interactions start getting real and sexual and he knows what he is doing but he regards it as pursuing love to its logical end.

  6. Final strategy when nothing else works, show Adam doing nice things and plowing Noel’s driveway for free during snowstorms and being a really nice guy, then just beat up on the dude during the story. The audience will sympathize with Adam based mostly on how much time we get to spend with him. So if Noel is always telling us about how his neighbor Adam is always getting an earful of screaming from his wife Willow, maybe even a black eye, and he is out on the back porch crying his eyes out where "no one can see", and his dog gets run over and his car gets repossessed and Willow runs off with the kids, we get a certain rapport with him. Then Noel finally meets up with him again, Adam says “I feel better, I found some friends online who are really helping me through this.” Oof, ouch. Then we find out, “Look at this,” Adam shares the group chats with Noel discreetly... and this was actually like Codependency Anonymous or so, some online therapy group, totally innocent! Meanwhile Perry is Willow’s friend and says that Willow shared all of these details about Adam's creepy attraction to children, Noel immediately sides with Adam, “Yeah I’m sure Willow said that, I’m sure she also accused him of arson. Adam's getting the help he needs, tell Willow to do the same!”

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