How to Control Reader Reactions to Character Sins

How to Control Reader Reactions to Character Sins

How to Control Reader Reactions to Character SinsYour protagonist just messed up. Big time. We’re talking unforgivable sins here. Now, these sins are totally necessary to your plot. There’s no way you can write them out of the story just because they’re dark. But… here’s the rub.

What if you’ve pushed your readers too far? What if they can’t stomach your character anymore after what he just did?

Take Control of Your Readers

Being an author is all about control. We might even call it manipulation–but in a good way. Your job is to make your readers feel about your story exactly how you want them to feel. If you want them to love your character, you set the story up so he’s lovable. If you want them to loathe the bad guy, you set that up too.

After all, how either character is perceived is really in the eye of the beholder, right? In a different story, you might want the readers to sympathize with your bad guy. You, as the ultimate controller of the universe of your story, are the one who creates the circumstances in which your characters are beheld.

What that means, of course, is that if you want readers to feel a certain way–even in the face of objective incentive for them to feel exactly the opposite–then you have to do something about it. You have to carefully plan and set up your story to guide readers into reacting exactly how you want them to.

Problem: Your Lovable Protag Just Did the Unthinkable

This understanding of story (as an insulated paradigm controlled by you) is especially useful when your story presents a “good” character who does bad things.

By “good” character, I mean a character with whom you want the audience to identify. This is the protagonist or another character who needs to be sympathetic in some measure. If you alienate audiences from him, you’ll endanger their emotional connection to the story–and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

So what can you do?

The obvious answer, of course, is don’t push audiences too far. Don’t have your character do the dirty deed. Sometimes that will be an appropriate solution.

But, often, it won’t be. Often, the dirty deed is the whole point, and to back away from it would be a dishonest approach to the story.

What techniques does that leave you? Let’s look at one very simple, but effective tactic.

How to Get Readers to Forgive Your Protagonist for Anything

Today, I’m going to use two examples from Brent Weeks’s fantastic fantasy Lightbringer series, both of which feature his charismatic protagonist doing the “unforgivable,” and both of which elicited totally different responses from me.

(Be ye warned, spoilers!)

Example #1: You Almost Lost Me

Blinding Knife CoverWeeks’s Gavin Guile is a tremendously larger-than-life character, who brings both massive virtues and massive failings to the stage. We understand he is an essentially “good” man, which puts us essentially on his side. This allows Weeks to take many risks with Gavin’s “sins”–which occasionally risks alienating readers.

In the second book The Blinding Knife, Gavin watches the Thing He Wants Most slip (he thinks) from his grasp. He snaps–and he throws a problematic young woman to her death over his balcony.

Specific contextual justifications aside, I admit this one threw me for a loop (especially since the character has yet to face definite consequences for such a significant action). I had a hard time swallowing it in a character I liked so much. Larger-than-life flaws are one thing, but murder–even without premeditation–is another.

Example #2: Doesn’t Phase Me

Broken Eye Brent Weeks LightbringerThought murdering that girl was bad? Turns out there’s worse sins Gavin can commit. In the third book, The Broken Eye, it turns out Gavin is not only capable of the worst evil possible in his world–drafting black luxin (essentially unleashing horrible black magic)–but that he has, in fact, done it, and in so doing, killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people, and drastically affected the whole world for the evil.

That one girl’s death kinda pales in the light of a blasphemous holocaust. And yet… this second example was far easier to forgive Gavin for.

Why?

Two reasons.

1. It happened in the past.

2. It happened offscreen.

Is an Off-Screen “Sin” the Right Choice for Your Character?

The girl’s murder was vividly onscreen. This isn’t a bad thing by any means. “Vivid” is exactly what we’re all going for in evoking reader responses. (This is one reason flashbacks are usually much less interesting than the main narrative.) But depending on the response you’re wanting to evoke from readers, the “offscreen” choice may sometimes be the best way to control and guide their reactions.

And please note I’m not criticizing Weeks’s earlier scene: I’m just illustrating the vastly different reactions the two techniques elicited in me as a reader.

As another example, consider how Band of Brothers handled the ambiguous character Lt. Spiers. This is a man who turns out to be a supreme soldier and leader of men. But he starts by outright massacring German prisoners.

Spiers Killing Prisoners Band of Brothers

Or does he? We don’t know for certain because the whole event takes place off-screen. The technique masterfully prevents viewers from being alienated by Spiers’s ruthlessness, while at the same time enhancing his character via a little bit of mystery.

The next time you find yourself needing to write your protagonist or another sympathetic character into a dark place, consider how you might use the simple question of onscreen or off-screen? to best guide reader reactions.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What’s the worst thing your protagonist does in your story? What do you want your reader reactions to be? Tell me in the comments!

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. When you were a kid did you ever gleefully sing, “Blood and gore all over the floor, and me without a spoon” ?

    The worst thing my Protagonist does in a story is to deliberately murder his Antagonist, face to face, in a manner that makes the death slow, painful, and gives the dying man time to know exactly who has done it and what is happening to him, while his intestines are spilling out all over the ground.

    My character does it on scene in front of the reader’s eyes.
    I THINK I made it okay in the reader’s mind because the Antag had spent almost three years holding the Protag hostage to life-and-death blackmail. I made it dramatic with the Protag looking into his dying victim’s eyes and saying, “That was for Anni.”

    Anni was a woman who had been driven to suicide by the Antag.
    And later I made the murder weigh so heavily on my Protag’s conscience that he became distracted and missed his chance to…
    Well, that’s a spoiler.

    I wrote it on scene because I wanted to give the reader a spoon.

    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There is definitely a time a place to push readers with onscreen shocking deeds. To shy from them in many instances would be dishonest. When we do choose to show them, character motivation is a huge factor in making them go down. So is author intent. If the author doesn’t intend readers to just swallow the event as no big deal it ironically becomes easier for them to swallow it. Which I think is what you accomplished in your book.

    • “I made it dramatic with the Protag looking into his dying victim’s eyes and saying, “That was for Anni.””

      This immediately reminded me of a scene in Monk, which was handled a little bit differently. In case you’re not familiar, Adrian Monk’s wife Trudy died and her murder is yet to be solved during the majority of the series, and it is laced with small flashbacks, or Monk and other characters directly talking about his wife. He cannot and will not move on until his wife’s murder is solved, and you always get the sense of how loving she was.

      (Spoiler alert!) Monk finds… either the man responsible for his wife Trudy’s murder, or someone who was involved (I can’t remember, it’s been so long) in a hospital hooked up on a morphine device to numb the unbearable pain of whatever it was that put him in the hospital. (Sorry my memory is so spotty. 😛 ) Monk glares at him for a moment and says, “This is me turning off your morphine”, and he raises a finger and reaches over to the machine and switches it off. He watches the man’s face contorting in agony for a minute, then slowly raises his finger and says, “This is Trudy, turning it back on,” and turns the machine on again.

      This scene has followed me ever since. You get a clear look at that hateful and vengeful side of Monk, the side that wants to see suffering and payment for his wife’s murder, but you also see the transcendent love of the invisible character, absent from scene and life, who left an enduring mark on the soul of her husband which allowed for even the guilty to be spared unbearable pain.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        That’s such a great character scene! And it’s a fabulous example of *showing* the characterization rather than just telling it. You get so much across in just two simple gestures.

      • Michael says:

        Thanks for bringing up this example. That Monk finale delivered multiple, satisfying payoffs the audience had been holding out for the entire series. It’s probably my favorite finale in modern TV because it was personal and brought the resolution the main character desperately needed.

  2. I really like your link to Band of Brothers. I believe another off screen link to that same incident was the belief that one of those German prisoners the Lieutenant massacred was an American who just happened to be in a German uniform because his parents answered Hitler’s “call.”
    Well, after reading about Gavin, I thought no protagonist could have ever done anything more unforgivable than mine. After all, mine shot up his school killing 17 and wounding 28 before turning the gun on himself. I have been told that I had done a good job building up lots of sympathy to the protagonist before hand and that left many readers still feeling sorry for him when he carries out his atrocity, though most then feel guilty for feeling sorry for him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you “controlled” reader reactions exactly how you wanted to. The point is that in writing about a tricky scenario like this, the author needs to be perfectly aware of what he’s trying to accomplish.

  3. Kate Flournoy says:

    Great stuff here. I didn’t know there were techniques for something like this— I usually just play it by ear. 😛

    Question— in your opinion, can pity and understanding replace ‘liking’ for a character?
    I have this guy who’s pretty much majorly messed up. He’s hard and uncommunicative and sometimes he can be insensitive to the point of cruelty. He’s not really likable— I love him, but that doesn’t count. 😉

    There’s a reason he’s not likable, though. Early on in his life a great number of people (including both his parents) died to give him a chance to live, and he can’t grasp the concept that it was a gift, so he feels like he has to earn it; deserve it. He doesn’t accept that no one can deserve a sacrifice until the end of the book— that’s his arc. And he’s not really ‘likable’ until that point. He’s fascinating, but you’re always a little scared of what he’ll do, which isn’t very conducive to a warm, happy relationship. 😛
    So do you think fascination and pity and empathy can replace ‘liking’ for a protagonist and still work effectively?

    • Michelle says:

      Kate, I think that fascination and pity CAN replace liking and still work effectively. I’ve seen it done a time or do & it worked quite well. I can’t remember books in which I’ve seen this offhand, but sometimes a story about a character like this is more interesting than one about a likable character and can be a better read. In my opinion, anyway. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We have to be careful with the idea of “likability.” Although many characters will and should be likable, all characters do not *have* to be. Many of the greatest characters in literature are objectively unlikable. What’s important is that they be *interesting* and realistic (which Weeks’s Gavin Guile never falters in being). Sounds like you’re doing that just fine–although I’d be careful with the pity part, unless your desire is for the character to be a little pathetic.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        Thanks Michelle and Mrs. Weiland! Whatever else this guy may lack, he’s certainly interesting. 😉 I’m glad, because it was going to be awful changing him if he wouldn’t work quite like I hoped it would. 😉 😛
        He also has an enormous sense of sarcastic humor and a protective fascination for tiny, helpless things (like mice), which I’m sure will help.

        And thanks for warning me about the pity part— I didn’t think of that. I’ll have to be on my guard, for sure.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Humor is huge. Readers will forgive characters shocking amounts of things just because they’re entertained–*and* as long as the shocking deeds make sense within the character progression.

        • Sounds like you got some good details in your characters I like it.

      • Initially I was so worried about “likeability” in my MC it stalled my writing process. This was until another author told that it’s essentially overated. Likeable is not the right word for me now. I’d rather craft a realistic, interesting character and just tell the story. Maybe the story will manifest how likeable they are. I want readers to be able to relate to the character on some level.

    • This reminds me of Catholic vs. Protestant theology: salvation by works vs. salvation by grace. Luther said “it’s a free gift” and this was a new idea. Unless I’ve got it all wrong, of course.

    • What do we feel toward Scrooge, early on? Resentment because he’s rich, and pity because he lives so poorly

  4. I suppose it depends on other factors. Take the 2004 film portrayal of Phantom of the Opera with Gerald Butler. In the stage version of the musical, the Phantom kills two men off-screen. In the movie, the Phantom is shown violently suffocating a man before he drops his corpse, hangman style. But you still have teenage girls screaming, “Christine was an idiot for not choosing the violent murderer! He *deserves* to be loved! Raoul is stupid!” However, the man who is killed is, up to that point, not portrayed as unlikeable. He’s a drunk and a womanizer, and how dare he try to track down the hot, sexy Phantom? He had it coming. *sarcasm*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, the popular reaction to that movie has always disturbed me. :p

    • I have always jokingly said that Christine should end up with the Phantom. I didn’t connect well with Raoul, but I do wish for some sort of good ending for the Phantom. He is undeniably the villain here. Obviously he can’t have Christine (you just shouldn’t take the people you want and terrorize everyone else and expect them to respect you, much less love you for it). But it would be interesting to see some sort of continuation of his story to see a change in his character. (And yeah, I’m only familiar with the new movie version, lol. Sorry for sucking.)

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        The Phantom *is* a compelling character, without question–far more compelling than Raoul. But the rabid fangirl response to him reminds me a little of the unexpected teenage response to Paul Newman’s titular Hud. Even though he played the character as a villain, there’s an anecdote about how he was shocked and discomfited to learn teens were putting posters of the character on their walls and claiming him as a hero to look up to.

      • I have not seen “Hud,” and I’ve only seen the theater version of “Phantom” — they made a version with Gerard Butler? Anyway, I’m wondering if the reason the fangirls like the Phantom over Raoul is for similar reasons that they like the Cumberbatch version of Sherlock.

        Cumberbatch was surprised by how many women went gaga over Sherlock, even though he’s played as a “high functioning sociopath.” He pointed out that his Sherlock would be destructive in a relationship. Note, I haven’t seen the Johnny Lee Miller version, but it’s probably the same situation.

        The key thing about Phantom and Sherlock, though, is that they are masterful at whatever they’re doing, good or bad. They’re effective and clever, and other characters are reacting to them. Competence is inherently attractive 🙂

        I take those reactions as a warning to writers to make sure our good guys are *equal* against the bad guys. We can’t take it as a given that characters will love the good guys and hate the bad guys by default: we’ve got to characterize them in a way that earns those reactions.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Well, you know how women have always liked the “bad boy” archetype. 😉 What’s attractive isn’t always what’s healthy.

          • Isn’t that the truth! I blame Mr. Rochester.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Hah! You may have something there. 😉 Of course, the really interesting thing about that book is how it’s *not* a romance, but an exploration of Jane’s discovering her self-worth outside of her relationships with crummy people who use her. :p

          • I agree, but I didn’t realize that when I was thirteen. 😀

        • Joe Long says:

          I really enjoy Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes. He is not a likeable person. Over the course of the show Watson has to point out how he’s oblivious to other people’s feelings and helps him learn how to relate more sociably with others.

  5. I still remember the first time I put a “bad thing” into one of my (unfinished) childhood stories. The wicked dragon killed one of the dragons he had enslaved, by dropping a sword on him from high above. I was horrified by what I had written, and by the thought that my parents might find out! 🙂 I almost felt that I had done the dreadful deed.

    Pretty soon in my WIP, one of my characters (one of my favorites, actually) is going to murder another good character, who is actually family to him. However, it’s been pretty strongly foreshadowed, and he will regret it later, so I *think* it will be okay. The MC loves the murderer (her son) in spite of his flaws, so I’m hopeful the reader will too.

    • Oh, and the murder will happen off screen, since the MC won’t be present and won’t find out until later.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        The fallout for shocking events is always as important, if not more so, than the event itself. What will be the consequences–or not be the consequences? And what are you conveying to readers through either choice? I love it when character make bad decisions–even hideously immoral bad decisions–because watching them work through the consequences is where the heart of character is always found.

        • My superhero goes through a moment like this, although it was basically a setup. In trying to save two lives, she’s forced into a battle that results in her making a miscalculation and being (physically, not intentionally) responsible for their deaths.

          The real focus is her reaction to it, when she panics and basically has a psychological meltdown for a little while, blaming everything and everyone and herself and God most of all for what just happened.

  6. Joe Long says:

    My MC meets and falls for a girl who’s romantically off limits, as she’s his younger cousin (Inciting Event). They can hang out and do things, but not boyfriend/girlfriend things – which drives him a little nuts until he finds himself ready to do something illegal, immoral and frowned upon while she’s sleeping. (Key Point)

    I build up his tension and frustration show the logical progression of how he reached that point, and to allow the readers identify. If they found themselves in the same situation, would they be tempted to act in the same way, even if they knew it was wrong? In that way I hope the reader has some sympathy, that the MC is a good person who made a bad, unpremeditated choice.

    He doesn’t follow through, as at the last moment he recalls a crime committed against someone else he knew – which causes him to be disgusted with himself. No one else finds out, but it takes awhile for his guilt to fade, and is a turning point for him emotionally.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a big difference between a story that approaches a shocking “bad” deed as the premise of the entire story, knowing it’s wrong and shocking, and wanting to explore its ramifications–and a story that just tosses in a shocking deed for the sake of shockingness (or just as a plot device) and then breezes right on by. Readers will feel cheated, and will be much more likely to “blame” the character at fault, because in some ways, he just lost some of his realistic dimension.

      • To clarify, my comment about getting the readers to see themselves in the protagonist’s situation was a general comment. In this specific example the character’s actions were clearly over the line, to the point that he shocked himself into a change of attitude and direction. It’s that decision to change which is the Key Point. I wanted to lay out his emotional struggles from the Inciting Event to that point so that it wasn’t something out of the blue, but unfortunately consistent with how the character had been developed.

        Changing subjects somewhat, I read back over last year’s post on Inciting Events & Key Points, which I struggled with at the the time. If I understand it correctly now, the incitement changes the protagonist’s status quo, causing a reaction. The Key Event is when he chooses a new path, to act on the incitement. In my case, I have a drawn out incitement period where the MC has a new situation, but continues to react in his old ways, until he reaches a point where he decides on a new path.

        I’d think most romances would be similar in structure. Boy meets girl (inciting), boy decides to chase girl (key), girl allows herself to be caught (first plot point, such as the first kiss – when there’s no turning back, the relationship is redefined, on to act 2)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          The Inciting Event, which happens halfway through the First Act, is where the protagonist first brushes (and usually at least partially rejects) the main conflict. It will be turning point that will change the story in some way, but it won’t be as radical an alteration of the status quo as happens in the Key Event/First Plot Point at the end of the First Act.

          • Joe Long says:

            I get to the Inciting Event (their meeting) rather quickly but for awhile afterwards it’s a dance, as they’re not supposed to be together and he has to sort out his feelings and interpret her reactions – up to the point where he decides he will ‘go for it’, although realizing he has to change and ‘do it the right way’

  7. WIP in this revised draft the protagonist is still in “victim mode” …. seems to never learn her lesson about trusting the charmer, but she wakes up to the fact that she is not the weakling others think she is. I am working on this: How to work protagonist into empowerment so she can “slay the dragon” and become – not exactly fearsome, but powerful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Another important thing to keep in mind in this discussion of “controlling” reader reactions is the question: What does the reader want? Frankly, depending on the situation and how the character has been set up, sometimes the thing readers want most is actually to see the character do the shocking bad thing. This is especially true in revenge stories.

  8. Michelle says:

    Wow!! Thanks so much for your post today! I’m currently working on a novel, and the MC’s a “good Christian girl” who sins with her ex-boyfriend, causing twins to be conceived. I can’t write it out of the story – it’s essential to the plot. I hadn’t wondered much about what the audience might think about this or how they might feel about my character doing this, or another thing later one. She is a very likable girl, though, and I want people to still like her, or even love her, when it’s all over. So this post definitely gave me food for thought, & I thank-you for that. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with this when you’re out to explore ramifications and it advances the plot–although if you’re writing *for* the Christian market, I would be cautious about showing the deed too explicitly onscreen.

      • Michelle says:

        Thanks for your kind words. I’m not showing anything after the leadup to it and after it’s done. I don’t think it needs to be explicit. People’ll know what happened without having to go into detail about it.

  9. Ooh, this is good. Sometimes I will bounce off a book if a writer does not seem to realize the protagonist is a bad guy. This post puts a finger on where they went wrong.

    In analyzing why some characters can do wrong and I’ll love them anyway, I think it’s also a question of “compared to what”? Like Lyn’s example above, if you have the antagonist be so monstrous that normal people think “he needs killing” then the protagonist can get away with virtually anything in response.

    I have a backburner WIP with three heroines. There’s conflict between two of them because in the past, the third heroine killed the second heroine’s brother. He had been a resistance leader against the occupying army. The third heroine was a traitor. The second heroine wants revenge.

    I do show the betrayal in flashbacks (one for each heroine), as it occurred before the story began. And the third heroine’s arc is about how she redeems herself. She had believed that the resistance leader was a paranoid zealot who had endangered or killed innocent civilians. The second heroine’s arc is about learning to forgive. One theme of the story learning to distinguish who is truly an enemy and who is not.

    For my current project, I have been careful about my portrayal of my protagonist. She is a priestess dealing with an enemy cult. The cult is objectively awful: they will sever the souls of their own friends. When she deals with them she’s implacable and ruthless. Yet in the scene where she’s preparing to kill them, she also rescues a teenage runaway who’d thrown his lot in with that cult.

    I always tried to deal with this “good guy who does a bad thing” by making certain the character’s reasoning is clear and their motives come from a relatable place. Even if they’re wrong, I want them to be wrong for an understandable reason. If a reader would say, “under the circumstances I could see myself doing that” then a writer can probably get away with having a protagonist commit a sin or two.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree with this. And I think it’s valuable too to show how even these “forgivable” bad deeds, that don’t necessarily alienate readers, still have consequences for the characters. They don’t walk away unchanged, one way or another.

    • Great point about whether the author seems to approve of the bad deed. It’s one thing to present a bad deed as part of the character’s story, but it’s quite another to ask me as the reader to approve of it. I love reading books written by authors of all kinds of religious or nonreligious backgrounds, but as a Christian, I just can’t put my heart into a book that asks me to *approve* violating all my most strongly held principles. And what I really love is book I *can* put my heart into.

      A book that presents the bad deed *as* bad is doing something very different. We can all understand what it is to sin and to deal with the consequences, and allowing a reader to work through that process vicariously is one of the great things fiction can do.

  10. This idea was the whole impetus for one of my fan fiction stories. My friend and I had watched the episode ‘Justice’ in Quantum Leap [a time travel series where Sam has to ‘right what once went wrong’ and is described as the ultimate boy scout/do-gooder]. Sam had to pretend to go along with the bigoted ways of the KKK. He hated it, even though Al told him it was the only way to achieve his objective of saving the life of a young black man. This led to a discussion as to what would be the worst possible thing that we could make Sam ‘have’ to do, that would still be ‘for the best’. My story ‘Snake in the Grass’ was the result, in which Sam is forced to rape a 14 year old girl. Totally Unforgivable, right? Except the alternative was that she would be brutally gang-raped by 7 other boys. So it was a ‘lesser of two evils’ scenario.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Means vs. end is an argument I always like to explore. Again, it comes down to consequences. Even actions with the best of intentions (even inarguably good actions) have consequences.

    • JSchuler says:

      I would have considered your Sam a definite villain in that story, as instead of one victim, there are now three.

      1) The girl, who still gets raped.
      2) Sam, who now has his sense of right and wrong horribly distorted and will never be the same, compromising his decision making during future hard cases.
      3) The poor innocent Sam has replaced during his Leap, who is now on the hook for a rape he didn’t commit.

      At least three lives destroyed. Bad trade.

      • Honestly, I agree. I don’t think ends ever justify evil means, not even once. Whatever “good” we imagine we are bringing about in the world is nothing compared to the injury we are doing to our own hearts and souls.

        I like fiction that shows what a difficult choice this can be in practice, but this is one of the major principles I just can’t compromise. A writer loses me when I’m really supposed to approve of an “ends justifies the means” choice. Understand and sympathize with, yes, but as Katie says, it’s a choice that is going to have consequences, not least in the character’s own heart.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        I agree with that interpretation–and the consequences it provides opens up a whole new tangent for thematic and moral exploration.

  11. You guys never cease to amaze me. Whew. I just waded through all of the comments and all of the points in consideration are excellent.

    I had no idea either that there was a technique for this kind of thing. Bazinga. The details are a tall order for me since I’m a simple simon. Not completely out of reach, but it does take more consideration on my part.

    Mentioning something happened off screen would totally spark my curiosity. Which could work out for the story and it’s affect on the reader. There’s so many things to juggle when your writing a book!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The offscreen technique can also raise other interesting possibilities in that readers won’t ever *know* exactly what happened offscreen–so an unreliable narrator could be used to create all kinds of misunderstandings and irony. This is more or less what was done in the Band of Brothers example.

      • In my WIP, almost all the serious action happens offscreen, or more precisely, the MC hears bizarre stories. He (and we) are never sure whether they are true until the climactic scene–and then even that certainty is taken away as someone tells him that it was a dream

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          From what I’ve heard of your story, it’s a great example of how to use off-screen happenings to control the readers’ experience of the narrative.

  12. Robert Kamer says:

    My protagonist kills her boyfriend. In the very first sentence of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First sentence “sins” fall into pretty much the same category as Gavin’s “it happened in the past” sin. Readers aren’t yet invested liking the character at that point, so the character’s shortcomings aren’t personal. The sin is more of a hook, getting readers to ask, “Why would this person do this?”

  13. Interesting concept. My characters haven’t done anything quite as bad as murder, but the worst mistake of their lives have all been terrible, immoral decisions that have led them to their all-time lows and certainly happen “off-screen” in the past.

    My characters in general are not exactly poster children for stable, happy and well-adjusted human beings. Some strategies I’ve found quite useful in making them likable despite their often selfish and cruel behavior is, 1) giving them something to love, ideally something dependent like a puppy, a sick grandmother, or a child, and 2) showing them at their most vulnerable.

    Love your blog – I will be thinking more strategically about what I decide to show on- and off-screen in the future!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “give them someone to love” technique is known, in screenwriting parlance, as “save a cat” or “pet a dog.” It’s a hugely effective technique when wielded well, to create layers of depth and dichotomy within a character.

      • Suddenly I’m reminded of some German propaganda–which I saw thru the medium of American propaganda–“Hitler with dogs.”

  14. I write from the protagonist 3rd person PoV. The problem with the protagonist doing terrible things, the reader always sees the event through the character’s eyes. The character may certainly perform actions that are brutal or terrible or illegal or…
    Well, the reader always knows the motivation.
    Which isn’t really a problem, I guess. The PoV itself sheds light in the darkness.

  15. I had my chaaracter Molly be brainwashed by her evil family. Her vampire hunting family kidnaps her and drugs her and forces her to hate vampires. After returning to her vampire friendly family, Molly tortures the vampires that live with her aunt and uncle. She does awful things, but is not “in her right mind.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t think you’ll have any problem with that. Characters who aren’t “themselves” get a free pass. This approach can, however, cause its own problems if readers feel the “brainwashing” has remade the protagonist into another character–one they don’t like or care about as much as the “real” protag.

    • Wait, you’re saying vampires are good? They live solely by destroying the lives of others. It can be metaphorical for people who live that way. And they’re irredeemable; they cannot be turned from being vampires, they can only be killed.

      Torturing vampires–I think of slowly sticking a wooden stake thru the heart!

  16. I got a couple of great takeaways from this post – the idea of having an MC commit something off-screen and the notion that flashbacks have less sensory impact on the reader than the main story. It’s curious, because I’d been using these devices unconsciously in my novel as a way of trickle feeding a significant supporting character’s arc from a good guy to a bad guy in what (I hope) is a believable way. By inserting a rare flashback, I was able to sow the seeds of the character’s corruption by giving a foreshadowing of their deep-seated emotions. As usual, you have been able to identify and articulate these devices so I can use them in a more conscious way. I imagine they could be used in a variety of examples to deliberately lessen impact and manipulate the reader. Sounds Machiavellian doesn’t it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writers are kind of Machiavellian. :p We talk about the power of story, but the truth is most of us wield that power entirely unconsciously. Once we start understanding which techniques create which reactions, it opens up a lot of possibilities for better using that power to create the stories we want to create.

  17. Adam Jennings says:

    Through blind Rage Zen My main Character who was brutally raped and nearly killed. This cause ptsd, this causes deep depression and social anxiety. thinks a certain king was responsible for her rape she goes after him and kills him, even though she finds out later he was not responsible. she also thinks she has killed her father in the attempt. on the edge of suicide it up to her family and friends to bring her back from the brink. I got some awesome take aways from this. thanks

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Makes me think Jimmy in Mystic River who kills the wrong guy because he thinks he’s responsible for his daughter’s murder. Definitely interesting stuff to explore.

  18. This really couldn’t have come at a better time! I’ve been debating on whether to have one of my protags commit murder to save the sanity (if not the life) of his new bride, or have it happen off-screen.

    The TL;DR version: the protagonist’s new bride has an ex-boyfriend who’s escalated his harrassment to a level where she doesn’t feel safe going anywhere or doing anything outside their apartment. The ex-bf has actually decided to kill the protagonist, thinking he’s the one who got between them. The protagonist turns the tables and strings the ex up like a cheap Christmas decoration and states that it isn’t the first time he (the protagonist) has has to do something like this, then he pushes the chair, making it look like a suicide.

    Afterwards, the protag has his security detail clean up after him. All of this without his new bride knowing what he did, believing that her ex actually did commit suicide. Since he’s done this before off-screen, the act itself doesn’t really change him, but who knows– he might find it easier to do these rather distasteful things to protect the ones he loves. It’s a negative change if it is, and I don’t think all changes need to necessarily be positive ones.

    Like Jamie said above- the reasonings and motivations for committing their unforgiveable sin need to be perfectly clear.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Agree with everything you said here. As I’ve mentioned in other comments, showing the consequences of the act are important too–but sometimes those consequences can be entirely internal within the character, rather than external “punishments.”

  19. When I read the title, I thought: oh god, that’s exactly what I’m struggling with!
    Really, it is a problem of a very important character in my story, but not the protagonist. This character is a kind of a witch, a very misterious one. The protagonist cannot decide if she can trust with her. In fact, in her past, when she was young, she committed a terrible homicide. Then, she understood her mistake, she also tried to commit suicide, and she spent her life trying to get forgiveness.
    Someone told me it was too much for her and I’m trying to make her do something else, but I still think that it was the best choice for her.
    How do I understand which one is the best choice for the story?
    Thank you KM! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First step: follow your gut. If you feel it’s right for your story, even in the face of your critiquer’s reaction, then it probably is.

      Second step: get additional feedback. If another reader comes back with the same response, then it’s probably worth seriously reevaluating what’s making them feel that way.

  20. The blasphemous holocaust can be less evil, or less emotionally impactful, than one girl’s death, because that one girl has a face and a name and maybe we know her.

  21. Michael says:

    The sin: I eased into it, and had my main character repent immediately following the deed.

    My main character — by the time he commits his sin (huge deception) — has already saved the cat and endeared himself to the reader. In fact, I’ve gone further and presented him as a goodie-two-shoes who refuses to deceive or break the rules. The sin he commits is to deceive his wife, but even before he commits it, I have another character deceiving someone else with a surprisingly positive outcome. In other words, the idea to deceive originates from someone else. His wife even practically begs him to “lie for once,” albeit in a completely different context. So, when the catalyst hits him (his wife declares divorce), he acts in a moment of jealousy and rage and performs the act of deception in question.

    However, he immediately repents for having committed the act, but now his actions have caused an unstoppable chain reaction which he must hurry to repair before she’s gone forever.

    I made him likeable, kept the sin from being premeditated, kept it as something out of character for him, and had him come to his senses immediately following the act, with the balance of the story now centering on acts of redemption.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you had all your boxes checked! If readers are invested in a character and like him, they’re much more likely to ride out his “sin,” especially if they understand his motivation.

  22. I’ve never seen Phantom of the Opera. I’ve heard of it, though. And someone wrote a fanfic with John Watson actually torturing a criminal, which is something I can’t stomach. I like the BBC version of him.

  23. Christy Moceri says:

    Something is irking me, as I seem to have created a character who can get away with anything. At the start of the novel my hero, Fel, kidnaps Elen, the heroine, in an attempt to ransom her for his imprisoned brother. At the lowest point, they get into a physical altercation in which he terrorizes her in a pretty nasty way, but then he is consumed by guilt and lets her go.

    Elen and Fel are later forced to work together, and the main gripe I get is that Elen is too hostile to Fel and that she should feel more affection for him. While eventually, they will fall in love, this blows my mind. As if the trauma of being held captive and terrorized by this man should be immediately forgotten because he had good intentions and he’s willing to work with her now (for a mutual goal they share — getting his brother out of prison.)

    Perhaps part of the problem is that I have been slow in parceling out her own secrets, and that she has lied to him and manipulated him in an attempt to achieve her own ends. We have Fel’s backstory and the various torments he has endured throughout his life as a result of his race, but she comes from a position of privilege and her sufferings are not as fully understood. With one scene in particular, she is very hostile and readers felt she should be softer toward him. So in going back to the drawing board, I have tried to draft a scene that adds something new rather than rehashing the same conflict — by showing that she is developing ambivalent feelings, both resentful of what he did to her and confused by his emerging better qualities, and making her motivation for keeping secrets more clear (basically the whole thing is too traumatizing for her to deal with.) I hope that this makes her more understandable to readers.

    But frankly, it irritates me that she is not allowed by popular opinion to be too bitter or deceptive. He can be a violent, rude, crass, alcoholic capable of killing without compunction but she cannot, heaven forbid, lie to him in her own self-interest. I suspect there is a gender double standard at play.

  24. Christy Moceri says:

    I also want to add a masterfully crafted example of the Unforgiveable Sin in one of my favorite ever books, Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold. This is the 8th or 9th book into a series in which we have grown to know and adore the hero, Miles Vorkosigan. (Miles is an unlikely hero – a four foot nine, hunchbacked machiavellian genius with bipolar disorder, also the privileged son of one of the most powerful men on his planet.) In the previous book, we are introduced for the first time to Miles’ clone-brother Mark, who was raised in captivity with the sole purpose of destroying Miles, who has become a formidable military threat. Bujold could have easily let this lie as a twisty little gimmick, but instead, Mark becomes a whole person unto himself, and his voice rules the next novel in the series.

    Thus in Mirror Dance we see Mark having achieved freedom, taken under Miles’ wing but left to cope with the burden of a lifetime of trauma that centers around Miles’ existence, including routine beatings, surgical disfigurement, and violent sexual abuse. There is little to like about Mark, but you are so deep into his psyche you know that it is through no fault of his own. He has no identity without Miles, and he hates Miles for it. Probably his lowest moral point (for me) is when he unleashes his confused sexuality on an eight-year-old girl who has been genetically engineered with the body of a woman. This is the point at which you think, “god, I don’t know if he can come back from this.” Shortly after, he betrays Miles, a well-respected Commander, and takes his place (they look, of course, exactly alike.)

    What follows is one of the most powerful redemption arcs I have ever read. Even as he blunders his way idiotically through his new environment, there’s never a point at which you want him to fail. You wait for him to understand the hearts of the characters you have grown to know and love, to realize the relentless grace and mercy of the family he has been accepted into, and to cobble together some sense of self that is not reliant on his brother. The novel ends with an even more deeply traumatized, but nonetheless whole, person.

    There’s a reason Bujold is one of my favorite writers.

  25. How would you go about using this technique in a novel? Especially when your writing in Third Person POV of the main character and he does a horrible deed

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The techniques I outline in the post are meant to be used in a novel. They work in any POV.

  26. My character’s worst act is probably betraying his best friend and leaving him to die so far. I wanted to make him kill him, but it just didn’t seem right, since my MC has–he’s lacking in a lot of other areas–a strong sense of honor and loyalty, unless you betray him….then you might want to watch out. Yikes!
    He’s very sarcastic(like myself) and he can be very insensitive, but he’s got his reasons…I’m trying to make the story as original as I can, but it keeps reminding me of star wars. Got any ideas on how to make the antagonist his father without making him cliche?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I recommend thinking of all the stories in which you’ve witnessed the evil father trope. Make a list of the similarities, then start brainstorming new angles.

  27. Trine Ottosen says:

    Hi.

    In my YA novel, my male lead ends up hitting my protagonist, fist to cheekbone. It is a scene where he discovers her betrayal, emotions are intense and escalating. Ultimately she pushes him, and he hits her in affect.

    This is meant to be a devastating moment for both of them, and for the reader. We know at this point in the story, that his father has been violent for some years, due to a tragedy in their family and the fathers own inability to cope with his grief. The chock that he ends up repeating his fathers violent reaction, completely shatters his self respect.

    My problem is, that I want them to end up together in the end. I want them to be able to forgive and start over. I know my protagonist can forgive him, but question is if readers can?
    What is your thoughts on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the protag demonstrates true remorse and, most importantly, *change*, then, yes, I think readers will forgive him.

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