Characters: sympathetic, interesting, or both?

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This post is partially inspired by John Gwynne’s epic fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen. I’ve read three books of the series, and overall I have enjoyed them quite a bit. If I had to make comparisons for the series, I’d say it’s what you would get if you crossed the Belgariad with Game of Thrones. Somehow, that mix works. I recommend it for those of you who want to see a modern update on a more classic type of fantasy.

But there’s one aspect that trips me up a bit as I’m reading it. There is a significant amount of point-of-view time given to characters that quite simply are not sympathetic at all. Some of them are still interesting characters, but I don’t care what happens to them (other than perhaps rooting for them to die). This results in an uneven reading experience for me, and when I’m reading these chapters, I simply want to get back to the characters I like.

This brings me to a larger question. What are readers looking for? Would people rather read about sympathetic characters or unsympathetic characters who are still interesting? As a reader myself, I don’t mind occasional time spent in the head of an interesting but unsympathetic character. But then there are books that take this to an extreme. An example of this, for me, would be The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. The characters are all complex and interesting people, but I couldn’t stand reading about them because I honestly wouldn’t have cared if they all died.

On the other hand, you can give me a flat character who’s sympathetic, and while I might not love the story I’m reading, I’ll still root for them. Maybe that makes me a heretic. After all, it seems these days that the trend is to write about antiheroes. For me, antiheroes are good as a spice. Maybe you have one or two point-of-view characters who fit that description. In Gwynne’s series, it still generally works because you don’t spend nearly as much time with the unsympathetic characters. A lot of that time is meant to reveal what the antagonists are up to, which can be difficult to establish when you’re using third-person-limited point of view.

This same issue has been my biggest struggle with some of the bigger fantasy series out there (A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan, The First Law trilogy, The Broken Empire, etc.). I don’t hate the books by any means. I see what others like in them. But when I read them, I don’t enjoy them nearly as much as something by Brandon Sanderson or Jim Butcher, authors whose characters may not be as complex. But I like them.

In my own writing, I have to be careful to strike a balance between what I enjoy as a reader and writer and what other readers will enjoy. Most of the time, it isn’t too hard. I know my audience is more Brandon Sanderson readers than George RR Martin readers. My books have a fair amount of violence in them, but they wouldn’t be considered Grimdark by any stretch of the imagination.

Modern fantasy has influenced me in some ways, however. I will admit that I kill my fair share of characters (perhaps some GRRM influence there). But I still write in a world where there’s at least a fundamental theme of hope, where heroes screw up but still try to do the right thing. And, yes, I do sprinkle in a few antiheroes (and anti-villains–they’re so much fun to write).

So I’d say I strike a balance on this spectrum. I want my characters to be both interesting and sympathetic. Of the two, I’d say I lean more toward sympathetic, but I don’t want to write boring characters either. It can be a delicate balance, and to make my characters interesting, I make sure that they make mistakes. A perfect hero is a boring hero. Flaws are what make us (and characters) human. And yet I believe a hero can be flawed without being a terrible person.

Now I fear I’m rambling on. What are your thoughts on this question?

One thought on “Characters: sympathetic, interesting, or both?

    Carol J Forrester said:
    August 12, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    I’m on the third book for the song and ice and fire series and I’m struggling to get through it for this exact reason. The main character is fine, I’m just not particularly interested in her. She just comes across a bit wet while some of the other characters seem fierce and fantastic and I do want to know what happens to them.

    Like

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