Pick up any book of writing advice and near the top of the list of the so-called necessary traits for your successful novel, you'll find "sympathetic characters."
For most readers, this means characters you can relate to and root for. A good sympathetic character is flawed, but not irredeemably so, like Bridget Jones and her weight and smoking problems. We want to believe in the core goodness of our sympathetic characters. Frodo can be temporarily corrupted by the ring, but in the end, his inner good will triumph over evil.
I believe there's a comfort in this. Maybe it encourages us to believe that we, too, can find our way to the side of the angels. But I have to confess that deep down, when it comes to what I think are the most compelling characters, I'm drawn to the dark side.
We often see these sorts of characters in supporting or antagonist roles. We love the characters because they give the hero something worthy and powerful to vanquish, like Voldemort or Hannibal Lecter or the relentless hitman Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men." These characters are compelling, but we're never asked to identify with them to engage with these books.
But there's another strain of literature where the unsympathetic characters play the protagonist role. They appear where the hero should be, but are often not at all heroic. Many of my favorite books have these kinds of characters, and it's made me realize that I'm not looking for sympathetic characters so much as complex and fascinating ones.
For example, take "The Great Gatsby." Given the events that unfold in the novel, it's hard to root for Jay Gatsby or Tom and Daisy Buchanan, but once you've read the book, you can't forget them. Another "favorite" of mine is "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who spends an entire novel engaging in special pleading that he should be an object of sympathy; remarkably the character earns empathy, if not sympathy, to a certain degree. Imagine Jerry Sandusky half convincing you that he isn't a monster. It's a kind of performance that you can't stop reading.
Tom Ripley, who first appeared in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" by Patricia Highsmith as well as in four sequels, is a sociopath who spends his time plotting murder. Yet if Ripley existed and invited me over for a meal, even knowing what I know about him, I'd accept in a heartbeat.
As a more recent example, next year, when the film version of Ron Rash's "Serena" hits screens, millions will be introduced to Serena Pemberton, the wife of a 1930's Depression-era timber baron who proves herself as ruthless and capable as any man in protecting what's hers. She even plots the murder of her husband's young, illegitimate child. As the story unfolds, I found myself simultaneously rooting for and against her ultimate success, reading through my parted fingers with both dread and excitement.
Maybe I'm an oddball or maybe I have a particularly dark view of the world, but what I think I appreciate about these books and these characters is their willingness to recognize the less savory parts of our souls. These characters just feel, for lack of a better word, "true" to me.
By getting us in some way to sympathize with these unsympathetic characters, we're given a kind of permission to not be heroic. While we may hope to be Harry Potter, somewhere inside, there also lurks that inner Voldemort.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin
2. "Live By Night" by Dennis Lehane
3. "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers
4. "My Berlin Kitchen" by Luisa Weiss
5. "Ghosts of Manhattan" by Douglas Brunt
— Courtney R.-T., Arlington, Va.
For Courtney, the odd, fairy-tale/mystery, "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey
1. "Waging Heavy Peace" by Neil Young
2. "Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas" by Rebecca Solnit
3. "The Nigger of the Narcissus" by Joseph Conrad
4. "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff
5. "Las Vegas Noir" edited by Jarret Keene and Todd James Pierce
— Jeff E., Superior, Wis.
The vibrations are telling me that Jeff will enjoy Kevin Wilson's simultaneously funny and sad story of extreme family dysfunction, "The Family Fang."
1. "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien
2. "The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson
3. "City of Women" by David R. Gillham
4. "We Sinners" by Hanna Pylväinen
5. "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce
— Kate P., Lisle
For Kate, a Chicago-based novel from Jami Attenberg, "The Middlesteins."
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