Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When a Character Does the Unforgivable



Thank you to all those who sent prayers and good wishes my way last week.  They must have worked; my first biopsy came back benign.  I feel very blessed.  One more to go then I’ll be free and clear.  Right now, I’d like to get onto more serious writerly endeavors.  With all the upset and turmoil in my life lately, I fear I’ve let my blogging duties fall by the wayside.  This is my lame attempt at making up for that.

I recently received a critique from a fellow writer, someone I admire and respect for his mad writing skillz.  He gave me a great deal of feedback, and I’ve been busy making revisions based on his recommendations.  I am actually shocked what he was able to pull out of me.

About one third of the way through my manuscript, after my male protagonist does a very, very bad thing, my critique partner commented that it would be very difficult for him to feel sympathy for that character any longer, that although he sees how circumstances pushed him towards his actions, it just might be too much and he might not ever like him again.  But was willing to read on and see.

I’m glad he was willing, and I assured him I did my best to change the reader’s mind.  In the end, he said that I managed to pull it off after all, that he did come to care for the main character, that he wanted to see him atone for his sins, and he did.  Congratulations, he said. 


Whew!  What a relief!  But even after all the praise he gave me throughout, I’m still worried, because what if an agent reads through that part then gives up?  What if he or she is not willing, does not believe I can make the character atone and redeem himself?  I mean, that’s the whole trick of the book, the reason I wrote in the first place. 

Now, my writing is in no way eloquent like my last CP.  I don’t lay claim to that particular skill.  But what I do think I did, and reasonably well, is take the reader on a crazy wild ride through turmoil and bedlam.  I made my champion suffer then turned him into an anti-hero and raked him over the coals for it.  Then I forced him to atone for the most unforgivable of sins.  The theme of my novel is forgiveness, after all.  But the reader will never know that unless he or she has the patience to see it through.

I did all those things you’re supposed to do to your MC:  I made him human, imperfect with a huge chip on his shoulder.  I gave him loads of room to change, balancing his strength and humility, turned his affliction into integrity, made him strive for the impossible, brought his compelling struggle to satisfaction though not completely resolved.  He is dark.  He is troubled. And he is seriously flawed.  But is he too self-destructive to garner sympathy?  Does he step over a line for which there is no absolution? 

I wrote this novel from a particularly personal point of view:  Mine.  I can’t say that others would ever be able to forgive the unforgivable, but I wanted to show it’s possible.  I hope I have that chance. 

Have you ever read a novel where the main character steps way over the line?  Were you patient enough to see it through to the end or were you too disgusted to continue?  
            

89 comments:

Lisa L. Regan said...

Great post. Well having read your incredible book, I think that is possibly what is most amazing about it. You're with the protag and then you're most decidedly not and then you're with him again. It IS a wild, crazy ride. (That's the other thing you did amazingly well, is build suspense and keep the reader absolutely reeling. All. The. Way. Through. Wish I could say the same, I always sag in the middle!) Anyway, I think this is a valid concern for you to have but I also think that agents are discerning readers and that they would read all the way through. I'm an all-the-way-through reader. There are few, few books that I start that I will not finish. What I often find is really cool is how an author can take a character who actually makes you recoil at first and later make them sympathetic and even likeable. M. Margaret Ansay's Vinegar Hill comes to mind (the husband's mother) although that's not really comparable to your book--it's not a suspense novel. But to answer your question: no. I always give the book and the writer a chance. Actually what turns me off more than something truly disgusting happening in the narrative is just plain, bad writing. I think you've got a winner on your hands and I think you are going to find your agent pretty quickly in this next round of querying!

Jenny S. Morris said...

I have to admit that I would have to be completely invested in this character. BUT I really love the idea of forgiveness. It is a theme in my book. And you can't see how the forgiveness works unless they do something that needs to be forgiven. So I guess it would depend on the character AND what they did.

Eva Gallant said...

You certainly have aroused my curiosity about this book!

Freya Morris said...

Totally the same as Lisa - bad writing turns me off or not getting on with the style, more than the character. Or annoying characters too. : )

Deana said...

Oh yes! Now I may be different, but once I start a book, I usually always finish so I can handle hating a character and then watch them change. I often times like to be totally mad at the books I read, because then I can get totally excited about the outcome:)

And I didn't know about your tumors. You will be in my prayers for sure. Hugs!

The Desert Rocks said...

I think I felt that way about the Girl with the Tattoos and Fire breathing dragons. I guess I might have given up too soon, considering they are number one bestselling books for over a year!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Wonderful news about the biopsy!!!
I almost pushed my main character too far into the unlikeable category with my first book. (One reviewer thought I did anyway.) It's a fine line between keeping the essence while toning it down just enough not to alienate readers.
I'm sure you'll manage!

Mark Koopmans said...

Aloha Nancy,

First of all - very glad to hear your biopsy came back negative and I'll pray for the same next week.

Secondly, thank you *so* much for the kind words you left on my site regarding my "GermFest." You made my day and I wanted to say you have a new follower and I look forward to reading your posts!

(I'm co-writing a memoir, so I don't have an "bad/evil" character... yet, but I'm looking forward to developing one for my next WIP :)

L.G.Smith said...

Good news on the health front. :)

I know what you mean about worrying whether an agent will give up too soon. I had one stop reading (she said) because she didn't agree with a really, really, minor choice the character made about taking a bath. Seriously. But I think if you include in your query that the story is about redemption then it would signal a change is a coming. Just my two cents. Good luck. Sounds fabulous.

Lynda R Young said...

Continued prayer for the final biopsy.
It's sometimes a difficult balancing act. We can't please everyone all of the time and if we try, then we end up pleasing no one. I do like Luanne's comment though.

Caledonia Lass said...

I don't think I have ever "fell out of love" with a character for something unspeakable. I have read a couple of books that had some characters that have done some questionable things, but then you realize the circumstances that drove them there.
Good post.

Patsy said...

I'm glad you've had good news about your health.

I've read stories where the mc does very bad things and if there's a good reason or they have plenty of redeeming features I'm prepared to forgive far more than I would in real life.

Patti said...

I'm sure I have read something, but nothing comes to mind right now. I've wrestled with this myself and I thought the only way I could redeem the character was to kill them off. Not sure I'm going to do that though.

cleemckenzie said...

Super good news deserves a celebration! Hurry for you.

The Golden Eagle said...

Great news about the biopsy!

This post was particularly interesting for me because I'm considering rewriting one of my characters as more of an antihero; I'm fascinated by them.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Nancy, I'm glad to hear the positive news on the biopsy. Thank heavens!

In the last manuscript I wrote, I had a similar problem. The reader learns on the first page that my MC did a VERY BAD THING. A couple beta readers told me that made them leery about him from the very start, and one said he only kept reading because he trusted ME and knew I had to have an ace up my sleeve.

But it IS a worry, and when a reader doesn't trust you like that, he or she might very well give up on your story. What I did to alleviate this concern was emphasize the youth of my MC in that opening chapter, so that the reader realizes he was too young to fully understand his actions at the time. I hope this gives the reader reason to keep on reading to watch him come to grips with his crime and atone for it.

LynNerdKelley said...

I'm so glad you got good news about the biopsies. I didn't know about them, but now that I do, I'll keep you in my prayers. We're losing our house and in the process of moving, so I haven't kept up with blogging very well lately either.

I think your critique partner telling you that you did it is great and you should go with your gut instinct. If an agent knows it's a redemption story, they'll know to keep reading, and I bet they'll want to keep reading to see how it unfolds.

Take care, Nancy.

Cate Masters said...

Wonderful news on the biopsy. Hoping your next round goes as well.
The right critique partners are like gold. Hang onto yours!
I tend to give books and characters more leeway than most, and do stick with it till the end usually.

alexia said...

Have you been to Colene Murphy's blog today? She talks about a book about girls who love murder (yes, murder) but she loves the characters even though they're really creepy and totally not heroines. So, it can definitely be done!

Nikki Jefford said...

I like characters who step over the line. I bet I'd like your guy!

I've had to tone down my heroes because I keep hearing that they're too dark or whatever, but they have good reason to be and end up, as you said, redeeming themselves.

I like dark. I say keep at it. Not all readers want the unblemished prince. Boring!

Jessica Salyer said...

Congrats on your biopsy! That is great news!

I think that it sometimes gives it a nice twist. We all love to hate a good character.

Lydia Kang said...

I've read novels where the MC steps over into the line of being way too weak, and doesn't change nearly enough for me to respect them by the end of the book. That was a bit annoying for me.

McKenzie McCann said...

Sometimes I do get frustrated with characters for being stupid. What determines whether I keep reading or not is how I felt about them before they wrecked themselves. Do I want to see them seek salvation? If the answer is yes, I'll continue to slog. If not, I'm done.

Donna K. Weaver said...

If a character does something that steps over the line, I might step back from the book. Like your critique partner, if I've lost respect for the mc and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get it back, I may stop reading.

However, a lot of the time I was reading Dan Wells' "I Am Not a Serial Killer" I was saying "No! John, don't do that!" But Wells had managed to make John sympathetic, so while John was making what I thought were terrible decisions I was willing to stay with him because I trusted he would eventually come right. And he did. My faith in both John and Wells was justified.

I wonder if your book blurb could make that clear. I'd be one to go back to that if I was worried about where the book was going to see if I wanted to carry on.

Katie Gates said...

Hi Nancy, First, thank you for your kind comment on my recent blog post. As for your question, I cannot recall reading a novel where the MC seemed to step way over the line, but I do recall a recent two-term president... Character is character and the fact of the matter is, some DO step over the line. The key, as you know and have explored here, is keeping the reader interested. I'm glad to learn that you were able to accomplish that. You also, though, raise a good point re whether an agent will get far enough to learn of that accomplishment. That's always tricky, and when it comes to agents, I have no batting average (at least, not with novels) so I cannot really comment on that issue!

Jasmine Walt said...

Congrats on the biopsy result! Hope your next one goes just as well!

As far as that is concerned, I think that if you really get the reader invested in your character from the beginning that they'll be willing to see it through, just because they'll have to know what choices he makes from that point on. I think the key point is relatability-- everyone's done something in their life they view as unforgivable, and perhaps it's not as extreme as what your character did, but if you can get the readers to connect and invest in him, they'll be compelled to see it through as much for themselves as for the character. :)

Empty Nest Insider said...

Great news on the biopsy and I"m feeling really positive about the next one. I'm sorry that you're going through all this, as it must be emotionally and physically draining, not to mention extremely uncomfortable. But hopefully, the worst will be behind you soon.

I just thought of a character who committed a horrible act, and received the love of a wonderful woman, as well as, a daytime emmy for doing so, Luke on General Hospital. He accomplished all that with a bad perm, so anything is possible. Keep writing, and take care of yourself! Julie

Nancy Thompson said...

Oh my gosh, I forgot about Luke and Laura! It's pretty mush the same thing. What do you know! Thanks Julie!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks for ALWAYS being so supportive of me and my book! I just hope I can find an agent who feels the same as you do!

Nancy Thompson said...

Exactly! Well, I hope I build enough sympathy early on. Thanks Jenny!

Nancy Thompson said...

One can never have too many critique partners! (If you're ever interested.)

Nancy Thompson said...

Ugh, annoying characters bug the crap outta me! Thanks Freya!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks for your prayers, Deana! And I'm finding most people will stay with the book.

Nancy Thompson said...

I heard a lot of people thought the Girl/Tattoo books were really boring. No wonder you gave up!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Alex1 I know I went too far, but that's the whole point.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thank you, Mark! And you so deserve the praise!!

Nancy Thompson said...

Seriously? About taking a bath? You're scaring me, LG! And yes, my query does clue the reader in to the MC seeking atonement. Thanks LG!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Lynda! LG always has the best advice, doesn't she?

Nancy Thompson said...

Well that's exactly what I'm hoping for. Thanks Caledonia Lass!

Nancy Thompson said...

Whew! That's a relief to hear. Thank you Patsy!

Nancy Thompson said...

I killed off two of my four main characters. But I can't kill this one off. Thanks Patti!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thank you thank you!!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thank you! I love me a bad good guy! I like'em dark and twisty!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thank you Dianne! I spend a great deal of time on the MC before he does his wicked deed, then the rest of the time trying to redeem him. I hope that works.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thank you Lynn! I am so sorry to hear about your home. That's incredibly tough so you're in MY prayers.

My query mentions atonement, so I hope that does the trick.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Cate! That's nice to know.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Alexia, I'll go check it out!

Nancy Thompson said...

Oh Nikki, that's so nice to know. I need more writers like you to read my ms! Thanks so very much! You give me hope.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Jessica! It is a rather big juicy twist. And I love the guy, no matter how twisted!

Nancy Thompson said...

Weak is definitely not a trait my MC possesses.

Nancy Thompson said...

Glad to hear it, MacKenzie. I spend a lot of time up front making him a good guy so the reader really wants to see him atone later.

Nancy Thompson said...

That's what I worry about, an agent stepping back too soon. Funny you should mention that book. I hated that book and literally threw it across the room half way through.

As for my blurb, yes it's clear in the revised query that he seeks redemption. Thanks Donna!

Nancy Thompson said...

Well, here's to hoping I can find and agent who'll stick with it! Thanks Katie!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Jasmine! And yes, that's exactly what I did. I take the reader on the full journey from beginning to end so they know who he is, why he changes, and whether he is capable of atonement.

Richard said...

You might want to add foreshadowing or hints of possible redemption during the darkest part of the book so the reader sees hope. (I had a similar problem with my WIP, and my critique reader pointed that out to me, and it led to some important changes in the story.)

JeffO said...

Nancy, great to hear about the biopsy, I've got my fingers crossed for #2.

Yes, you did a great job bringing your protag back from the depths. It's not an easy thing, but you did it quite well!

I've been thinking a lot on this subject in the last few weeks, and I don't think I can adequately order my thoughts on it here in this tiny little space. If I can get my act together, maybe I can make my own post on this for Friday! To answer the last question, I don't think I've ever stopped reading a book just because the MC crossed any lines. I stop reading either because the story just doesn't hold my interest, or the writing is so bad I can't continue.

Clarissa Draper said...

It's a very fine line. You don't want to change the character and his actions but you also don't want the reader to stop reading. It would be a hard decision to make. I'm glad you kept going with it though.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I'm so glad to read that things are looking better with the health issues. Here's to continued success and good news.

And yes, I have read novels where the main characters catapult over the line. How I react to this depends on what I already think and know about the character. If I really like him or her, I'll be trying to rationalize or justify his/her actions. Even if I no longer like the character or am disgusted with him/her, I may keep reading to see how things turn out. This depends on how far into the story I am and how much I care about the supporting characters and plot.

R. Jacob said...

I am not the writer but I know what I like. I like to feel I am in the room. I want to feel the emotions the main character is feeling. I want to feel as smart as the hero, able to figure out what to do next. I want to lose my self in another place and time. I want to wish I was as dashing, heroic, that I had some talent that will dave the day. I am not asking too much now am I? lol

Susan Oloier said...

So glad you received good news on the health front. I have read novels where the MC crosses a line and does the unforgiveable. If I am emotionally invested enough in him/her, then I will continue to read on--even though I may not agree with the choices.

Carrie Butler said...

I'll keep you in my prayers for the next biopsy, too. Good luck! :)

Dark, troubled, and flawed? I'm in! I love characters like that. I think the important thing is that we relate to the character early on. Then, even if he does do something "unforgiveable," we'll want him to redeem himself. We'll keep reading, waiting for that moment. Know what I mean?

Rachel Morgan said...

Yes, I have read a novel like that. Cassie Clare's CLOCKWORK ANGEL. I thought one of her characters just went TOO FAR in being heartless and cruel. But because I absolutely adore the way she writes, and because I've always loved her books, I read the next one - CLOCKWORK PRINCE - and I have done a total 180 for this character! We get to see things from his perspective, and understand exactly why he acted the way he did (and it's brilliant, that reason, so brilliant!!). So... I guess I'm saying that if you've crafted a good story that people have become invested in, then hopefully they'll continue reading!

Al Penwasser said...

I really like to think I'm patient enough to see a book through to determine whether any misgivings I had about a character were merited. And if I'M patient enough-shiny things and baked goods distract me, after all....ooooohhhhhh, look! Cookies!!!!
Okay, I'm back. Where was I? Oh, yeah. My point is that an agent is SUPPOSED to read a book through, isn't he/she? I honestly believe if you're talented enough to change a reader's perceptions, you're wayyyyy more talented than some hack who sits on a toilet on the curb.

Alleged Author said...

I'm so glad your biopsy is clear!

I had to tell one of my CPs that I couldn't sympathize with her character 3/4 into the ms. The character had also done a bad thing. But, after the fix, I loved the character again!

Jennifer Hillier said...

Thank God you're okay. Really and truly. I would hug the crap out of you if I were still there.

I love that things are working out so well with your crit partner! It's so important. Sounds like your book is getting even better than it already was! Can't wait to read it.

Heidi said...

I'm glad you're okay. I think it really depends on what the "unforgivable" is. Rape, and I'm done with the book. Rape of a child, and I'm done with the author. Other than that, I think I can see a protag through most things.

M Pax said...

Yay on the benign result, Nancy! Hugs. What stress.

Your novel intrigues me. I would find the character stepping over that line interesting. So, I would keep reading.

Nancy Thompson said...

Done! Thanks Richard!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks Jeff, you are a true godsend!!

Nancy Thompson said...

That's what I wanted to hear! Thanks Susan!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks, Carrie, that's great to hear. I need another beat/CP like you!

Nancy Thompson said...

Well I think I have. I certainly hope I have.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks so much, Al! I love that dude who sits on the toilet on the curb!

Nancy Thompson said...

I hope I can do the same. Thanks AA!

Nancy Thompson said...

Aw, I feel your virtual arms around me! Thank you! And I can't wait for you to read it either! Give me a couple of weeks.

Nancy Thompson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Thompson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nancy Thompson said...

Uh oh on that first one.

Nancy Thompson said...

Thank you Mary! I hope I can intrigue more folks out there.

Margo Kelly said...

Great post. First, I wish you the best with your health! Second, I think if you establish a link between the reader and the MC early on ... the reader will want to continue reading to find out if the MC can overcome and grow by the end of the book. My MC makes a lot of bad choices ... which leads to bad events ... but, well, she grows in the end! :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

I can be patient. Susan elizabeth Phillips writes characters that I really can't stand in the beginning because of what they do but she manages to redeem them and then by the end I'm rooting for them!

Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

It's definitely a tough balance isn't it, because we want our heroes to be flawed but not to the point where we think them evil. Usually. So if you turned it around, good for you. Actor Gene Hackman said that if you can play a monster, yet bring some glimmer of humanity to him, you've accomplished something as an actor. So too, as a writer.

Donna K. Weaver said...

You didn't finish it? You have to finish it. And not just the first book. It's all about the journey. Hard to read but totally worth my time.

Lora R. Rivera said...

Oh I'm so glad it was benign! I'm so very glad.

Great post, Nancy. "But what I do think I did, and reasonably well, is take the reader on a crazy wild ride through turmoil and bedlam." I have to admire you for this. I think it takes guts to write a character like that. I actually haven't read a lot of books where the MC does something really, really bad, but I'd be intrigued to watch the transformation. And thanks to your readers' comments, looks like I have a few new TBRs with tough MCs! Excellent.
--Lora

Nick Wilford said...

Glad you're OK, there's no need to worry about keeping up with blogging when you've got things like that happening!

I think good people CAN be pushed to do terrible things - there might be something at stake for them which is making them do it. If they didn't show any remorse or think it was wrong, then I would be less sympathetic, but still be intrigued as to why they were like that. In either case, I don't think I would stop reading!

I've nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award! Details are at my blog. :)

Joylene said...

Nancy, so happy to hear it's benign. I can actually imagine how you feel. Like a ton of bricks have been lifted off the top of your head and you're no longer being screwed into the ground. Bravo!

Whenever I'm told my character is less than sympathetic, I think Dexter, or Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma, and know I can tweak my protagonist into a 3-dimensional character who my reader will enjoy, maybe not admire. It's all about rewrites. Personally, I like flawed characters. I think they're much more interesting and intriguing than the goodie 2-shoes. Tom Cruise in Interview with a Vampire is a great example.

Juliana L. Brandt said...

I have only read one book where I couldn't forgive the MC BUT he did the unforgiveable right at the end so there was no way for him to redeem himself. It sounds like you have things figured out.

I'm sorry I haven't been keeping tabs on my blogs lately and am late to your news. I am sending up prayers for you! *Hugs* and congratulations on the good news :)

Melodie Wright said...

Glad to hear your news. Whew!
And like everyone else, if I'm hooked by the story then I usually give the character the benefit of the doubt. Or I may just skip to the end. ;)

cleemckenzie said...

Stopping in again to tell you I've left something for you over at the Write Game. You have one already, but then so did I. Two is better, right?