Monday, May 26, 2014

On Writing: The Problem with Sympathetic Characters

There's a problem with selective and omniscient Third Person, and that's that it creates too many sympathetic characters in the story and not enough conflict. But, Jacob, you might be thinking, when two people think they are in the right isn't that the very definition of conflict? Probably, but the fact is that it creates very confusing character dynamics.

There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but the fact is that when you refuse to have a true antagonist beyond a hive mind or group dynamic, there's a hard time for the reader to focus on who they are supposed to root for. I'm going to use a series that I have just finished re-reading, but not actually mention what book series it is. For two reasons, 1) I've already picked on it a few times and it really is a good book, and 2) because it carries over to a lot of other book series. That series is The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett

The first book begins with three main protagonists, not too bad, and an amorphous set of bad guys. At one point one of the characters is betrayed by his companion and an antagonist is created. Perfect. But, then that antagonist is added to the set of three from the first book and given a back-story to make him out to be a man of honor doing what he believes is right to save the world. Great, now we have four protagonists and an amorphous group of bad guys that are little more than beasts. Well, during the second book, the fourth protagonists wife is introduced as a rather bad person, so she is more of an antagonist, right? No, during the third book, the author focuses on how she is doing what she is doing out of love and honor and that she is actually a good person, too, despite the shady way she goes about it. So what do we do?

Well I still hate his wife. I still disagree with her husbands methods, and one of the protagonists is kind of a jerk, too, so I think I don't like him as well. Now the book has an amorphous set of bad guys who are supposed to be a bad guy, a ruler who is doing the right thing for the right reasons but in a rather despicable way, and a wife who is conniving and vicious but truly loves her husband. Who are we supposed to be rooting against again?

With the same problem as having too many perspectives, when you have too many sympathetic "villains" you disperse whatever conflict you might have among the characters of the book until in the end you have no conflict at all and you begin to wonder, "Why are these people fighting each other?" It's less evident for these characters because the reader can see how the problems started but as the reader you begin to wonder why these problems are coming along. Who started this problem and why aren't they talking? They talk about everything length...but nobody talks among themselves.

Where is the line in the sand drawn for books now. Plot driven books in the past, the ones that were bread and butter for me growing up, always had the clearly defined antagonist. The dragon that stole the mountain. The Wizard who kidnapped the Princess. The Emperor who was running things all along. Now, with character driven stories, everyone has to be sympathetic and it leaves me wondering, are there any bad guys left in the world?

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