the slush minion’s diary #4: sympathetic characters

This ‘slush minion’ post is more of a question than anything else.

There is a school of thought that says that ‘must have sympathetic main character’ is a box that must be ticked before a story is publishable.

I tend to think that the character could be unsympathetic, as long as he/she is interesting. An example: I’ve just watched District 9. The main character Wikus van der Merwe…man, he’s an annoying prick at the start. But he’s a CHARACTER with big fat capital letters, and after a while you feel sorry for him. He carries the story, because of what he was and what he becomes. But sympathetic… er…

So what’s your opinion? Do you automatically stop reading a story when you don’t like the main character? What are attributes that would make you stop reading?

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10 comments on “the slush minion’s diary #4: sympathetic characters

  1. I’d vote for interesting over sympathetic as well. There are several authors (Glen Cook leaps to mind) who specialize in a darker flavor of fantasy, where the idea of a “good guy” is more or less laughable. He seems to sell okay. 🙂

    I’m currently halfway through Abercormbie’s The Blade Itself, and it’s hard to describe any of the main characters as entirely “sympathetic”, but I’m curious enough to see what he’s going to do with them to keep going along.

    Things that make me stop reading: a character does something inexplicably stupid for the sake of the plot; the setting bores me; a hundred pages go by and nothing *happens*.

    • I agree about Abercrombie. None of the characters are sympathetic, but they’re interesting. That said, I haven’t bought book 2 yet. Also think of Karen Miller’s Hekat – talk about an unsympathetic character (this is the ultimate selfish, murdering bitch), but I liked the book where she was the main character.

      For me, characters that turn me off are those who whine and (barf) who are overly sentimental, or just too goody-two-shoes to be believable

      • Is your response to whiny and sentimental characters universal, or is it only when they appear to be written that way unconsciously? I ask because I have in each of my books (so far) a character that positively annoys the other characters for reasons like these.

      • It depends. If the whiny character is a secondary character to which the main character reacts, I don’t mind. What I can’t stand, though, is being in the head of a whiny or overly sentimental character and reading their whiny or sentimental thoughts

  2. Ooh, I love that movie and totally agree.

    I just read Starliner by David Drake. I wouldn’t say the main character was sympathetic, but he had a troubled past and acted in interesting way to the situations that arose. Good book; great characters.

  3. I actually prefer an unsympathetic main character for some stories. Redemption is a more interesting narrative to me than the standard: ‘good guy fights evil and escapes danger.’ That extra layer definitely set District 9 apart, story wise.

    One of the things that has pleased me the most about the early reviews (http://bit.ly/bSF0lW) of my novel is that the readers remained intrigued by both of my protagonists, despite their sometimes awful choices and character flaws that might make them villains in any other book.

    That said, there is a class of books and movies that just aren’t for me. I tend to call it, ‘ugly people doing ugly things.’ I’m not talking about Flannery O’Connor, whose work I love, and in which the appearance of a tractor in a field can serve as the sole, grand, redemptive element that uproots the story–but instead those works that seem to make the point that people are simply evil. If the unsympathetic protagonist became more fashionable, I imagine we’d see more of that.

  4. I recently had a a story rejected in the second round at ASIM because, though the reader said the writing was good, he/she refused to read past a flashback sequence where my character hurt an animal because “I can’t promote cruelty to animals.” In the context of the story though, the character was looking at it as a shameful part of his past.

    I prefer unsympathetic characters because they’re interesting for readers, and challenging for a writers, but feedback of the sort above makes me take stock of my feelings on the matter.

    Maybe it’s a reality check: do I have to write more to readers’ tastes than my own?
    I don’t know.
    I’ve sent the piece off for submission elsewhere and await further feedback. As writers that’s the only answer we’re ever going to get, I guess.

    • Know two things about the ASIM submission process (this probably applies to many other magazines as well):

      1. All our reading is anonymous. Story and contact details are separated for the slushing round
      2. We use about 20 people for the slushing process. It is quite likely that a story that covers a controversial topic (amongst those I rate murder by the POV character, incest or child sex offenses, cruelty to animals and abortion) runs into sensitivities of one of the slushers, inappropriate though I personally think it is (as in: when slushing, you should check your worldviews at the door). In practice, however, this is virtually impossible.

      As writer, you can take from this a couple of things:
      1. Hey, you got feedback! Most magazines don’t give that
      2. Do you really, really, really think the scene was necessary for the telling of the story? If one person thinks that way, there may be others. A controversial topic *may* hamper the story’s chance of getting published.
      3. ASIM is a happy place (read the guidelines). Maybe you have more success with a darker magazine.

      If not, shrug, and write another story

    • Without having read the piece, I would ask whether the scene could be misconstrued as glorifying the act rather than offering it as a critical moment in the character’s progression. The narrative tone of the scene, as well as its length and level of detail may dictate, more than its placement in the story, how a reader responds to it. In short, it might not be a matter of taste, but execution.

  5. I think you can’t beat ASIM for feedback just about anywhere. Hands down. Such a good opportunity for newbies (like me).

    I did wonder about the content of the story but when I got through the first round I thought I was onto a good thing… its with a horror mag now, which may be more appropriate.

    If they dislike it – not sure. It’s an age old question I guess, how many rejections signify that you should revisit what you thought was a polished story?

    great website patty!

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