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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. This is a problem I am struggling with while plotting out the arc of one of my primary characters (we’ll call him T). T has a long history of trauma – childhood physical abuse, homelessness, gang membership, unable to return to his family lest his abuser realize he is still alive and come finish the job. But rather than becoming brooding and angsty, T went the avoidant route and represses his feelings about his trauma, fronting as a shallow, carefree, charming, selfish Casanova. He leans into his sexuality as a coping mechanism.

    In the beginning of his arc, he is pursuing one of my other characters (we’ll call him E) who is physically very large and imposing, but suffers from severe anxiety, sometimes becoming nonverbal. E is asexual, and T is not going to understand and respect this aspect of his identity. He ends up pressuring E into having sex.

    I want to use this event to unpack assumptions about sexual assault by showing that men and boys are also assaulted, that silence does not equal consent, that size and strength are not automatic protection from sexual assault because there are other factors in play. E could have easily fought his way out of the situation, but it did not occur to him to do so, because the pressure to “put out” was not overt or physical, but emotionally coercive. He froze up and just let it happen. I am also exploring the nature of asexuality and what it looks like to be a supportive partner of an asexual person by contrasting T’s actions against another character (we’ll call her A) who will eventually be E’s “endgame”. She is loving, affectionate, and supportive, and they will have a full and healthy relationship without sex.

    When confronted about his behavior, T is initially shocked and defensive, denying allegations that he assaulted someone, because it wasn’t physical coercion, and E went along with it. But A is going to tell him, “It’s not consent if he feels like he can’t say no.” T will spend much of his arc facing up to parts of himself that he doesn’t want to acknowledge as a survivor of abuse; it will be hard for him to realize that he was the abuser in someone else’s story. But it will lead to a lot of growth and change for him. By the end of their arcs, T and E will both be in healthy, stable relationships with other people.

    My quandary lies in the fact that I am essentially writing a redemptive arc for a [email protected], which feels really heckin problematic. Is that something that can even be handled with tact and grace and respect, or is it doomed from the outset? Will the readers understand and appreciate the arc if I handle it with sensitivity, or is this an unforgivable sin? Is it possible to write a redemptive arc for someone who commits this particular sin without giving the impression that I am a [email protected] apologist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For any arc to work, it must be written with honesty. Beyond that, there is no reason that any type of redemption story can’t “work.”

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