Spoilers for the first season of Vinland Saga
One element of writing a compelling character is ensuring they are liked enough by the readers that they enjoy seeing them on the page. Balancing reader sympathy can be hard, especially for ambiguous characters. But it’s often the most complex and challenging characters who are the most well-loved. Today I’ll be exploring what earns a character reader sympathy, and why it’s interesting to have readers love complex, sometimes completely evil, characters.
I’ve talked about likeable villains before, but I’d like to study the questions more in-depth. A good example is Askeladd in Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura. Askeladd is the leader of a band of Viking mercenaries. He kills for money, he’s self-serving. His first actions in the story are to kill Thors, the paragon of virtue and our main character’s father. If that wasn’t bad enough, this murder breaks his promise to let Thors go if he beats him in a duel. Askeladd is objectively a bastard, yet a well-loved character.
What makes him earn reader sympathy despite these characteristics? I would say there’s a few ingredients.
Context. Every character exists within a world, in which actions are more or less acceptable depending on what everyone else is doing. Considering the level of violence in the first season of Vinland Saga, and the behaviour of other characters (who also murder for money or personal gain, who are also deeply pragmatic), he is comparatively not that bad. Sure, he kills. All the Vikings kill. Sure, he likes money. Most Vikings in the text fight for either money or fame. And yes, he’s self-serving. But except for Thors, I’m not sure anyone in the story isn’t selfish.
Justifications/motives. Askeladd always has a reason, be it only personal gain, for doing things. Readers, as a rule of thumb, dislike sadists. People who hurt for the pleasure of hurting rarely get a redemption. But although Askeladd is seen torturing someone, and murdering a group of innocent civilians, it’s always for practical, not emotional, reasons. Because his violence has a reasoning behind it, readers can understand it, even if they don’t approve. He also has a bigger motive than money – protecting Wales from Viking invasions – and it’s easier for readers to accept bad behaviour from characters with a noble goal. The end justifies the means, at least in our current narratives.
Suffering. Reader sympathy is, surprisingly enough, reliant on karma. Even if a character isn’t punished by the justice system, or by the people they wronged, still, if they suffer – if they are somehow punished for their bad deeds in the story – then readers tend to forgive them. If characters are punished after their bad deeds, it often redeems them. Paradoxically, even being punished before the bad deeds, simply knowing the character has suffered in the past, is enough to get them reader sympathy. Hence why a tragic backstory goes a long way, and is often used to soften evil characters. Hence why the redemption is death trope exists – if they’ve died for their sins, the characters are forgiven. Without too many spoilers, Askeladd suffers enough for it to count.
Cool factor. This will depend on the genre, but in SFF and shonen anime, a cool fighting style, or a sly character, or a witty one, or one who gets away with flamboyant actions, will be well-loved. We’re ready to forgive a lot if a character can do something which makes us catch our breath. It’s admiration, I think, which makes it hard for us to dislike them. Askeladd, as a mentor and a powerful fighter, is fun to see winning battles and beating our main character into the dirt. We like him to show off his abilities.
Counterbalance. A good action or a kind word goes a long way to counterbalance bad actions. Askeladd takes on Thorfinn, our MC, and cares for him in his own distant, unfriendly way. He treats him relatively well, all things considered. We know he’s pragmatic and that the society he lives in is ruthless, and that Thorfinn, with age, will become skilled enough to cause him trouble. He will most probably be killed by Thorfinn if he lets him live. Yet he doesn’t get rid of him when he has the chance, but more or less adopts him. This counts – in this particular context – as a good action, good enough that we then forgive him other transgressions.
Regret. It helps readers forgive characters if they feel the character knows they did a bad action and wouldn’t do it again. Askeladd’s biggest crime, at least in the eyes of Thorfinn, is murdering Thors. And it’s the only crime, as far as I could tell, which Askeladd feels mildly sorry for. After Thors’ death, Askeladd is broody and grumpy for a couple of days, upset in ways which he doesn’t make obvious, but which seem to indicate that he regrets killing Thors – although he could never admit it without losing face in front of his men. Askeladd doesn’t need to be sorry for everything he does; he doesn’t even need to apologise. But we, as readers, know he feels regret for the crime Thorfinn won’t forgive him for, and that helps us like him.
It's a mix of all these ingredients, and how they’re dosed, which make or break a character. Not all of these need to be used, and not all always work. But by playing with these various factors – context, character’s motivations, suffering, coolness and badassery, good actions, and regret – a writer can create a compelling character, well-loved by the readers, who is yet objectively a terrible person, who we would prefer to never meet outside of fiction.
21 Jan. 23