Sympathetic Characters

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Emma Donoghue, author of the acclaimed and bestselling book Room (which I highly recommend), attended Houston’s Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series in November 2012 to read from her new collection of short stories, Astray.

In her post-reading interview, she briefly mentioned the research needed for a tale set during the American Revolutionary War called "The Hunt." The story, inspired by court records, includes rape perpetrated by young soldiers.

To bring the story to life, Donoghue had to understand the rapists' mindsets. She pointed out what a head game it is to see from bad guys' perspectives and give them rationales.

Donoghue's comment made me feel a little better about my own struggles. I had just finished my second week of NaNoWriMo and the antagonists in my novel's outline had gradually become sympathetic to me. My bad guys weren't all that bad, felt like. At least I wasn't the only one with this challenge. (Though I'm still trying to figure out how to surmount it.)

And her point made me think of Nabokov's Lolita, which was written in the voice of a pederast pursuing a twelve-year-old girl. Humbert justifies his actions and gives us his point of view on events. Even though we're sure he isn't reliable, the dimension of the world from his perspective and our attempts to understand him keep us reading. If we didn't sympathize with Humbert a little--even though we know he's a vile liar--we would have a hard time getting through the book.

I'm no Nabokov.

Wrestling with bad characters gave me new respect for authors who can make antagonists truly loathe-worthy. (One of my favorite baddies is Uriah Heep in Dickens's David Copperfield. Just remembering him makes my skin crawl.) There's incredible difficulty in ensuring a reader hates a character—but doesn't hate him so terribly much that he can't keep reading.

Who are your favorite bad guys?