Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sympathetic vs Likable Characters

In my reviews, I talk a lot about characters and whether or not they're sympathetic. Many writers want their characters to be likable, especially their main character. After all, the reader has to spend an entire book with the main character, and why would they devote that much time with a character they didn't like? It can sometimes get tricky to keep a character likable, especially when characters begin doing unethical things in the name of the greater good. At what point does a character stop being likable? At what point do they stop being sympathetic? Though the two are related, they are definitely two different concepts that many writers get mixed up. Writers can sometimes become so obsessed with making their character likable that they forget to make their character sympathetic.

But what is the difference? 

When your character is likable, they are someone your reader enjoys reading about. This relies more heavily on personal preference and so it's sometimes impossible to create a universally liked character, though many writers lose sleep trying to create one. A character can be two dimensional, crude, rude, erratic in their actions, and completely unsympathetic, but they may still be likable if there is something about the character the reader connects with and enjoys. A character can be likable because they are sympathetic, but they don't have to be sympathetic to be likable. 

When your character is sympathetic, they are doing something or expressing ideas that the reader can approve of. They are working to save their world, rescue their parents, save their love interest, etc. Even if as a person, they are incredibly unlikable, your character can still be sympathetic by doing the right thing. 

For example, in my review of The Outliers, I talk about how much I disliked the main character, Wylie. This was mostly due to personal preference, as Wylie did things and said things that I thought were rude and uncalled for. However, her overall motivation throughout the story-- saving her best friend-- was something I could sympathize with, and therefore I could continue reading. It's like the idea of people working together in a crisis-- I can deal with not liking a character based on who they are, so long as their actions or ideas are sympathetic. 

But where do you draw the line? How do you know if you're writing a likable character, or a sympathetic one? Or neither? Or both? 

As I said, creating a likable character can be frustrating and nearly impossible, mostly because it generally comes down to personal preference. There are people who love Voldemort, despite the fact that JK Rowling made no attempt to make him likable. You cannot control how people will respond to your characters, just as you can't control how people respond to your personality. So don't even try. Don't focus on making people like your character, make your character consistent with who they are. If you want a stubborn character, don't tone down that trait to make them more likable. Embrace the stubborn part of your character, make it consistent through their actions and reactions, and readers will like your character for being true to themselves. 

On the other hand, creating a sympathetic character is something a writer does have control over, and should pay attention to. Generally, it's not hard to make your character a sympathetic one. Plot motivators tend to make for sympathetic situations-- needing to rescue a loved one, stop a catastrophe, free people from suffering, etc. But you don't need those external motivators to create sympathetic characters, as their beliefs and ideas have a big impact on how the reader views them. For example, your character may be a high class thief only out for personal gain, but their decision not to hurt people while on the job instantly makes him a sympathetic one. 

External elements to create sympathy are the easiest to do. Internal motivators to create sympathy have a much stronger impact. Your character can have both external and internal motivators to create sympathy, or only one or the other. Toeing the lines can create interesting character dynamics and is something authors tend to do frequently. 

In the Second Sons Trilogy by Jennifer Fallon, the main character, Dirk, has external motivators to make him sympathetic, but no internal motivators. He is working to save the kingdom by toppling a corrupt system, not necessarily for the betterment of his fellow people, but more because the structure of the royal court puts him in danger. He is all around unlikable-- arrogant, snobby, and really doesn't do a single nice thing throughout the whole series unless it serves him, despite the fact that he is doing the "right" thing. Jennifer Fallon admitted that she intended to do this with Dirk-- she wanted to see how bad a main character could be while still keeping the reader on his side. And it certainly worked! By the end of the series I thought Dirk was pretty much the scummiest guy you could meet, but he somehow still managed to remain the hero of the story. 

On the other side of the coin, in Vicious by VE Schwab, the main character Victor has internal motivators without much in the way of external motivators. He chases down his best friend who has become a serial killer, and though his expressed motivation is based on revenge (which doesn't make him overly sympathetic), he does acknowledge that he thinks what Eli is doing is wrong. So even though his external motivation is a choice of him getting revenge, his internal motivation makes him sympathetic as it shows he cares about others. 

Characters can be a hard balance. I speak from experience, as they've always been something I've struggled with. But managing that balance, once you have it, makes your book so much stronger overall. 

So, since I threw a lot at once, to sum up: 

Likable Characters are those who are liked by the reader, for one reason or another. All characters are likable in some way. Likable characters are based on reader preference. Generally, good deeds = people like your character, but the reasons a character is likable are as varied as types of literature. 

Sympathetic Characters are those whose actions, motivations, or beliefs, whether its proclaimed from the rooftops or inserted subtly, create sympathy and approval for the reader. They approve of the hero's journey, or at least their reasons for the journey. 

External Motivators for Sympathy are external forces that put the character into a situation that garners sympathy. They can be as literal as people locked in a cage needing to escape, or pressures from other characters to do things they don't want to. 

Internal Motivators for Sympathy are more the beliefs and morals held within the character that propels them to take action and creates sympathy in the reader. They can be stated outright or implied. They still inspire sympathy and originate from the character's belief system. 

Ex.) In the Hunger Games, the external motivator for Katniss is to stay alive in the games and the government structure invading her life. Her internal motivator is her desire to keep her sister safe and make it back home to her. 

Hopefully this helps to shed some light on what I mean when I talk about sympathy vs likability. So writers out there, relax, take a deep breath. Stop pulling your hair out trying to make your characters liked by everyone, and just make your characters true to themselves. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: The Outliers


Book Review: The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight

Goodreads Description: It all starts with a text: Please, Wylie, I need your help.

Wylie hasn’t heard from Cassie in over a week, not since their last fight. But that doesn’t matter. Cassie’s in trouble, so Wylie decides to do what she has done so many times before: save her best friend from herself.

This time it’s different, though. Instead of telling Wylie where she is, Cassie sends cryptic clues. And instead of having Wylie come by herself, Jasper shows up saying Cassie sent him to help. Trusting the guy who sent Cassie off the rails doesn’t feel right, but Wylie has no choice: she has to ignore her gut instinct and go with him.

But figuring out where Cassie is goes from difficult to dangerous, fast. As Wylie and Jasper head farther and farther north into the dense woods of Maine, Wylie struggles to control her growing sense that something is really wrong. What isn’t Cassie telling them? And could finding her be only the beginning?

My Review: I was given a copy of the Outliers by Goldberg McDuffie Communications in exchange for an honest review. 

The Outliers is a novel that sits somewhere between contemporary, mystery, and thriller, which makes it a unique beast. The story begins with Wylie, who in the wake of her mother’s death has been left deeply anxious and agoraphobic. She receives a text message from her estranged friend, Cassie, asking for help-- and not to tell her mother or police. The mystery mounts as Wylie makes her way out into the wilderness with Jasper, Cassie’s boyfriend, in the hopes to get Cassie out of whatever trouble she has landed herself in. But they have no idea what kind of danger they’re headed towards, and worse yet, Cassie's texts grow more frantic before going silent-- making Jasper and Wylie fear the worst. 

First off, holy pacing, Batman! It doesn’t lie when it says it kicks off right from the start and moves with a pretty rapid pace. The pacing worked fairly well mostly because it was spaced out with flashbacks to give more context to what was going on. Throughout the book, the flashbacks did add a vital piece, but I found the beginning the book was a little bogged down with these flashbacks and info-dumps. There’s a lot of info that the reader needs before they’re “up to speed” with Wylie and can continue with the plot, but I felt like it could have been handled a little better, as I was beginning to bore of the author spelling out Cassie and Wylie’s entire backstory before the action even began.

My main issue when it comes to the book has to do with Wylie, our main character. It was nice to see anxiety represented through her, and she does an excellent job of growing throughout the course of the book. That said, I can’t stand Wylie as a character. At the beginning of the book, she is completely negative. I couldn’t find a single thing that she looked positively on (except her mother, and the fact that she was dead didn’t shine a positive light on things). Even when it came to her friends, to Cassie and Jasper, she could only find negative things to say about them, even with her internal narration. I get that she’s supposed to have some mental health issues, but even the most mentally ill people have things that they like, people they like, places they feel more comfortable in. Because Wylie didn’t tell us a single thing she actually enjoys, it was nearly impossible to connect with her. 

Wylie’s demeanour improves throughout the action, as she says, she’s “better in a crisis,” which is completely believable. When in intense crisis situations, survival instincts take over, and even those who feel hopeless can find strength to push through. But it seemed like the author wanted Wylie’s growth to overshadow her negative attitude. And while her negatively lightened up by the end, she was still highly judgmental, pessimistic, and generally unlikeable. She snapped at Jasper I don’t know how many times throughout the book, never says a single nice thing to him, and yet at the end they’re holding hands. Yes, being together in a crisis will help them grow closer, but at the end of the day, when the crisis is over, Wylie is still a dick. And it makes no sense why Jasper puts up with it, other than he's a sucker for punishment. 

The one redeeming thing she does throughout the book-- her insistence to be a “good friend” and save Cassie-- doesn’t even feel genuine. It feels like she only goes along so she can judge Cassie for her poor choices. Cassie even mentions this-- that Wylie just came to judge her-- and yet Wylie doesn’t do a thing to convince her otherwise. It seems to me the only reason Wylie left the house in the first place was so she could dole out a bunch of “I told you so” and generally feel superior to Cassie. Other readers may not have a problem with Wylie’s character, and I generally consider myself pretty forgiving when it comes to flaws and unlikeable characters, but I literally could find nothing redeeming about the main character. Normally I’m complaining when a main character has too few flaws, but the reverse is true too-- there’s gotta be something likeable about a character if you’re spending a whole story with them. 

Despite my grievance with Wylie, I was really impressed with how the plot was handled and how things were revealed. It was a very strong mystery and kept me guessing as to what kind of trouble they would find themselves in. However, there was still a lot of things I could see coming, like the villain’s identity, but it was a very solid plot all together. The book read like a “Chosen One” fantasy tale without any of the fantasy. So if you’re longing for a good old YA archetypical Chosen One with a bit of a realistic spin, this would definitely be the book for you. There are a lot of “take backs” in that something will be established and then later on revealed to be untrue, which I can see some readers growing frustrated with. But all in all, the story fit together really nicely and I really enjoyed this quick-paced, intense ride that takes you by the hand and doesn’t let go. 

TL;DR: All in all, 3/5 stars. I’d probably punch Wylie if I ever met her in person, but the mystery and plot make this a solid read.