Christian Writing Writing Unsympathetic Characters

Johne

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Sep 27, 2005
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SF author Nancy Kress wrote about how to write unsympathetic characters in the show OZARK*.

I have started watching Netflix series OZARK, five years later than everybody else (this is typical for me. I’d like to think it’s judicious waiting for reviewers’ considered verdicts, but actually it’s just video amnesia.) I have seen only two episodes of Season 1, but already the show has raised a question that comes up over and over when I teach fiction writing: Do you have to have at least one major character whom the audience will find sympathetic and/or identify with? So far, OZARK has none, since I find it hard to identify with people who launder money for drug cartels, or commit gangland executions, or defraud bank investors. BUT…I am interested in OZARK’s characters anyway. When this question comes up in a writing class, my answer is that you can have unsympathetic characters IF you have something else going on that intrigues the reader enough. This can be gorgeous prose (Jonathan Frantzen) or deeply complex characterization (Ian McEwan in some works) , or enough unexpected plot twists that the reader/viewer wants to hang around and see what could possibly happen next. OZARK has the last, so I will keep watching. I always also tell my classes that this will not keep some readers, who will insist on someone to root for. You pays your money and you (take your chances).
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Johne

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* I haven't seen the show, and I also haven't seen BREAKING BAD. JUSTIFIED is all all-time favorite because Raylan GIvens, while being 'the angriest man I've ever met,' is still an agent of good and the law. I was still in the rosy afterglow of my JUSTIFIED favor when BB came out, and I just can't personally relate to characters who are so unrelently devoted to lawbreaking. (I love heist movies, which makes me a bit of a hypocrite in this regard, but you see where I'm going. We tend to root for POV characters, and in OZARK, the POV characters are law-breakers. It's just not my thing, but it's good information to know.

I knew a few geniuses and they can be unsympathetic characters who are otherwise upright people struggling to interact with normal people, so this is good information to keep in your writer's tool chest.
 

Zee

Mar 1, 2019
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Early readers love to hate the main character of my WIP so far…but they’re still reading. The mystery plot and entertaining side characters help, I imagine, but who wants to read about perfect, beautiful people with shiny teeth all the time?
 

Accord64

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Oct 8, 2012
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I have seen only two episodes of Season 1, but already the show has raised a question that comes up over and over when I teach fiction writing: Do you have to have at least one major character whom the audience will find sympathetic and/or identify with? So far, OZARK has none, since I find it hard to identify with people who launder money for drug cartels, or commit gangland executions, or defraud bank investors.
I have not seen Ozark, but Nancy's observations seem to mirror many shows/movies over the past few years - no characters with any redeeming or relatable qualities. And to make things worse, these characters usually don't see any meaningful, redeeming growth as time goes by. It's a new trope that I very much dislike.

When this question comes up in a writing class, my answer is that you can have unsympathetic characters IF you have something else going on that intrigues the reader enough.
Agreed, and for me it's seeing them reap what they sow. But alas, this seems to be a rare occurrence these days. I think this is one of the major factors behind the ever declining ratings/ticket sales for these types of productions. Audiences miss the traditional hero's journey to overcome the baddie. Now we just see a cast of baddies spreading their dysfunction everywhere like a wretched reality show.

I just watched an exception to this new rule. While I would hesitate to recommend this movie here (due to a "Quentin Tarantino" level of violence and language), "Bullet Train" actually had a sympathetic main character who stumbles through a bizarre string of bad luck - including what brought him on the train to begin with (thanks Ryan Reynolds!). This character (played by Brad Pitt) is himself a bad guy who is trying to reform his outlook. According to Nancy's checklist, there's an oddly sympathetic main character surrounded by unsympathetic, yet deeply complex (interesting) assassins set in an intriguing (and funny) plot that leaves the viewer hanging around to see how it ends. If only more productions would follow this basic design (less the epic violence).
 

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