Wednesday, May 18, 2011

PPWC Session: Creating Unsympathetic Characters (Elizabeth Hand) by DeAnna Knippling

There’s a trick to writing unsympathetic characters—they have to be unsympathetic (by definition), and yet, readers have to want to read about them. Unsympathetic characters aren’t for everyone; some readers hate reading about them. However, the session was pretty full of people who were interested in the type.

Some unsympathetic greats:
  • Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs.
  • Bron Helstrom from Samuel R. Delany’s Triton.
  • Light Yagami from Death Note.
  • Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.
  • Harry Lime from The Third Man.
  • (I have to add Alex from Clockwork Orange.)
All of these have been successful, famed unsympathetic characters, so clearly the market exists.

How do we know what makes up an unsuccessful unsympathetic character?  Are they just people with negative traits (which, really, includes all of us), or do they have something in common?

Liz noted that one of the reasons that we might be attracted to unsympathetic characters might be that they carry out actions that we, as responsible members of society, can’t do.  They kill; they take revenge out on other people.  Another of the reasons we find them attractive is that they are often seductive, at least superficially very charming.

These traits are often shared by psychopaths.

According to the Hare Psychopathy checklist, the diagnostic tool used by psychologists to assess psychopathy, there are two main factors associated with psychopathy: aggressive narcissism and a socially deviant lifestyle.

Some of the traits of aggressive narcissism (or the seductiveness mentioned previously):
  • Superficial charm
  • SuperficialPathological lying
  • Manipulative
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Shallow affect (emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
  • Lack of empathy
  • Failure to accept responsibility for action

Some of the traits of a socially deviant lifestyle (or lack of social inhibitions):

  • Boredom, need for stimulation
  • Parasitic
  • Poor behavior control
  • Lack of realistic long-term goals
  • Impulsiveness
  • Irresponsible
Here are some traits not associated with psychopathy:
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Many short-term marital relationships
  • Criminal versatility
So when we’re talking about unsympathetic characters, we’re not talking about people with different tastes in sex or cat-burglars, who are often genuinely charming.

Some of the main points to consider when building an unsympathetic character:
  • Troubled souls compel us.
  • Unsympathetic characters often have an accumulation or accretion or trauma that starts in childhood but continues throughout their lives.
  • Writers don’t need to excuse the characters’ behavior, just explain it.
  • People who are psychotic tend to commit suicide at lower rates, because they lack guilt or remorse.
  • Unsympathetic characters are often seductive (physically, mentally, or emotionally), which provides a good reader hook.
  • Unsympathetic characters don’t see themselves as villains.
  • It can be helpful to make an even more unsympathetic character, to make the main character seem more sympathetic (e.g., Hannibal Lecter is unsympathetic, but his jailer is even more so).
  • Suspense can build up an unsympathetic character without overexposing us (e.g., Harry Lime in The Third Man only appears in the last ten minutes of the film).
  • Other characters don’t have to sympathize with unsympathetic characters—only the readers.
  • Many contemporary stories tend to wrap stories up too tightly, giving happy or sad endings.  Unsympathetic characters flourish in complicated endings.
Other points that Liz brought up were that it might seem like an unsympathetic character might be incapable of having a normal life; however, they often compartmentalize their lives, so they might be a good father but a vicious serial killer.

She also expects (encourages) writers to write more about female unsympathetic characters beyond the current stereotypes of femme fatales, etc.  As women become less repressed, their opportunities to shine as unsympathetic characters should increase.

About the Writer: DeAnna Knippling blogs at, publishes ebooks at, and babbles pretty much anywhere she can get away with.  She has recently published short stories at Silverthought Online, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Crossed Genres, and she received an honorable mention in Best Horror of the Year, Vol. 3.  Her first book, Choose Your Doom:  Zombie Apocalypse, features many unsympathetic characters, and they're not always the zombies.

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