Monday, January 29, 2007

Sympathy for a Killer

It's hard for me to read a novel-length work about a main character that I don't like. I want to root for the main hero/protagonist in a book. I want to feel that I'm on the side of right against the side of wrong.

I also find it hard to write a protagonist who I don't like. (C. S. Harris said much the same thing on her blog recently.) Why is this a problem? Because I know that first impressions are as big in novels as they are in real life, and I worry that the protagonist in a piece I'm working on now will make a bad first impression. I like him myself, but I wonder if a reader, not knowing him as I do, would toss the book aside before giving him a chance. You see, he murders someone in the first few pages of the book. He murders them brutally after making them dig their own grave.

I wonder, could you read on about such a character? If so, what would it take to keep you reading? What would it take to make you forgive such a murder? Could you forgive it?


Sidney said...

I guess I'd have to say it depends but probably.

Is it told in the first person thus informing the reader up front he/she's going to be spending the next 90,000 words with a bad guy?

Or is it a third person opener that can provide some shock effect i.e. does the reader get through the scene think "Wow, this is really a bad guy" but read on only to discover - "Look out, the hero's not going to be chasing him. HE'S THE HERO - he's going to be up against some people even uglier than he is so hold on."

I was reading some critiques on Dan J. Marlow's Drake Series recently that noted since Drake was a bad guy early on he had to be the least nasty of the characters in the book. Maybe perusing some of those titles would be worthwhile.

Beyond all that, I think if the guy is interesting whether or not he's nasty I would probably stick with him. The Parker series also comes to mind.

RK Sterling said...

Hmm... I suppose it depends on what I read on the back cover. If I just opened a book and BAM, that's the protagonist, I'm not sure. Maybe. Probably, in fact, because I'd want to know why he did that.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

I wrote a novel with a protagonist whom I hate. He is a sonovabitch. Sadistic, selfish, totally hedonistic. He is also horribly charming and seductive. People who have read the book tell me how much they love him and at the same time tell me how much they hate him.

Once I got into the head of the character, writing as someone really evil was actually kind of fun.

Heather said...

I'd read a story with a murderer as the main character. But I'm a bit twisted. Of course there would have to be a good plot behind it. I don't know that I'd have to forgive him in order to like to book - maybe just understand him?

Susan Miller said...

I say that you have to redeem him within the first 100 pages. One book recently that I finally just put down and said there is no way I'm going to read another sentence of that crap never redeemed the protagonist for me. You, as a writer, can convince me of anything; it can be rationalized...just do it before 100 pages. If you love him..I can.

Steve Malley said...

The noir tradition is full of, shall we say, dubiously sympathetic characters. The key seems to be giving them something sympathetic to go along with the brutality.

We either need to know that the killer/hero isn't as bad as all that, or that the victim is even worse.

There's an old movie where Alan Ladd guns a guy down in cold blood, thinks about killing the secretary too, and beats the cleaning woman in his boarding house-- all in like the first ten minutes! But we buy him as the hero because he LOVES this little pet kitten who's his only real friend.

The-victim-is-even-worse can be as simple as a line of dialogue. "You're getting a better deal than you gave those villagers. At least you'll be dead when I fill the hole in." That type of thing.

Or The Professional combines the two. Leon commits something like thirty homicides (gunshot, knife, garrote) before the credits are finished rolling. But he's this simple guy who drinks a lot of milk, does a lot of situps and talks to his plant. Not in itself sympathetic.

Until we meet Matilde. And see the sheer ferocity of the killers she's up against. And when we learn they're cops, we know she needs someone who will be utterly ruthless protecting her.

Write it. The work'll find its audience, and probably change along the way anyhow.

I loved those first few sentences you posted the other day. That driving repetition, like hard men on the move for bad reasons. Cool!

Steve Malley said...

This Gun for Hire. That's the Alan Ladd movie! Better late than never?

JR's Thumbprints said...

If the situation is set up correctly, I believe the reader will sympathize with killer protagonist. It's all in the situation, imagined or real.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks everyone for the input. This is exactly the sort of feedback I wanted. It broadens my thinking on the issue and gives me plenty of examples, both general and specific, to work with. Much appreciated.

Bird on a Wire said...

I've found that the material that is the most difficult to write usually turns out pretty good. He sounds pretty compelling--but make sure he has redeeming qualities to balance with his more repelling qualities.