My writing group had a spirited discussion last night about the elements of sympathetic versus unsympathetic characters. It began when I described a scene in the book I'm writing, a scene that I believed illustrated a sympathetic female character but which most other members of my group felt showed, instead, an unsympathetic one. And so, without saying what my own choices were, I offer the following situation and ask you, my blogleagues, what you think. Here it is.
A woman's son was kidnapped when he was about ten and held by the kidnapper for four years. He was molested repeatedly but was eventually found and returned home. He is physically OK but certainly not psychologically well, and he runs away from home himself after about a year, leaving a note to his parents saying: "I'm sorry, but I just can't stay here. Don't worry." For further information, the woman's husband is not a factor, but the woman believes that the molester is still on the loose. Now, my question is: what would a realistic woman and mother do in this situation? What would she do immediatelly? And what would she do over the next four or five days?
Any help would be appreciated.
If she's sympathetic? Try to get the missing kid on milk cartons and stuff. Well or not, she wants that missing kid back.
The other kind? I dunno, three-day bender full of self-pitying monologue?
The thing is, the heroes need to act in a way the audience wishes they would. The villains can act as the audience probably would.
One character gives me fits in that department is Bree, from Desperate Housewives. She's a mum with screwed-up kinder, and she does some ghastly things on her way to doing right by them. I so do not get her.
What's the kid like on his return? How damaged was he? How did it affect her life? Would there be a bit of relief along with the grief? A bit of relief that would eat at her soul? That could be interesting...especially if he was in and out of juvenile hall or never really got over it and was always morose. Or maybe she's still blaming herself for the kidnap, and this puts her over the edge...until she's forced to come back, to help the police find him. What would make her sympathetic? I think pain and guilt followed by action would make her sympathetic to me. Human failing is an important aspect of this...she's obviously failed him on a certain level (whether there was really anything she could do about it or not) to make him run away.
I'd need to know more about her first -- how did she respond initially (addictions? despair?), before he came back.
Probably jangled when he left -- does she have friends who can help? Cops? Does she have weapons? What does she do "normally"?
Well, I would imagine she'd immediately call his cell phone (he's 14, right - gotta have a cell phone) call all his friends and the police, worry frantically, blame herself, want to start driving around looking for him but be terrified to leave the house in case he or someone calls or shows up.
If he has a mobile, call that - then move to call the police.
But, if it's immediately, I guess there'd be a long hour of soul-racking. I mean, she must have known there was something that she could not provide for him, try as she might...
So, she would possibly delay the police call and spend time in a torturous zone.
A realistic mother would become frantic, as if she were re-living the initial traumatic event. She'd immediately call the cops and may imply that her son is so brainwashed that he might have went back to this kidnapper/molester. Over the next four or five days she'd devise some type of plan to find her son.
Find him. Whatever means possible...find him.
I can't imagine being too sympathetic towards a character that does anything less.
Thanks everyone for the input, I'm going to post another day some more details about this issue.
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