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I'm writing a survival horror story that's a mixture between Bloodborne and The Last of Us. The story follows an emotionally distant woman and a physically disabled child as they trek through a world slowly being corrupted by some horrific cosmic entity.

Veronica (the emotionally distant woman in question) is cold and withdrawn. She suffers from PTSD induced by her turbulent childhood. The only way she knows how to cope is with violence and suffocating control. She's always been a curious person, but trauma distorted this passion into something she uses to predict and manipulate those around her. Only one person ever managed to sustain Veronica's torment and breach her defenses (let's call him Finn.) He was killed by the godlike entity not too long before the story begins.

Currently, Veronica's driving motivation is to reach the town in which the entity was first reported. She has an almost feral need to better understand this cosmic power because not knowing how it works saps away her control and leaves her panicky. This is a purely selfish motivation which is very in line with her character as almost everything she does is selfish, but I worry this isn't a relatable or potent enough motivation from the point of view of a reader.

Veronica does some horrible things (ex. almost shoots the kid she travels with since he's being used as a meat shield and murders a friendly group of scavengers for their supplies) that she justifies with this motivation. As the story progresses she begins to soften and her motivations change, but this doesn't happen until much further into the novel. I want Veronica to ride the line of redeemability but I'm scared this motivation will make it way too easy to hate her and reject any growth she shows later in the story as being undeserved.

I'm considering a different motivation where Finn and Veronica had promised each other that they would both try some of the native cuisine in the town where the entity was first reported. Since Finn's now dead I think it's a stronger motivation that more readers can get behind, but it doesn't mesh as well with her selfish nature and comes out of nowhere. Should I have both?

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In my opinion, you're overthinking this. Characters can do any number of horrible things and remain at least somewhat sympathetic to the reader.

Obviously the extent of her actions do matter, but it's possible to justify many of them in context.

For example, pretty much everyone would agree killing a child is wrong. How about killing a child in order to save the world? How about allowing a child to die in order to save the world? Many books are about exploring human behaviour, by creating situations where our grasp of morality is stretched and distorted, and hard choices have to be made.

Reader empathy with a character is 'relatively' easy to tweak, especially when they're the main protagonist and/or you're presenting the action through their POV. If you let the reader understand WHY she's doing things, WHY she thinks reaching her destination is more important than potentially harming the child then you build that understanding.

The reader might still fundamentally disagree with their actions, but you can turn up the character's prior previous experiences, the desperation of the setting or their mission etc.

There's plenty of examples of anti-heroes and how to make them palatable to the reader. Humour is probably off the table here, but there's always the good old "well the other guy (antagonist) is worse".

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We are usually blocked when we try to work out the details of our stories while we lack the underlying cohering structure: e.g. trying to polish a sentence when we don't yet know what we want to say.

You seem to be mixed up because you are trying to figure out who your character is while you are at the same time trying to chart out the direction of your narrative. Untangle the two!

The answer might lie in realizing that we usually don't want to read about real people. We want characters to be strong where we aren't, ruthless where we don't dare, loving in a way we have never experienced, to succeed where we can't.

What characters do you enjoy reading about? Begin by defining that prototype and flesh out your protagonist from there. Afterwards, you will know what they will do.

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