Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Working Too Hard for Character Sympathy

Writing about Liam Neeson in Taken has told me at least one thing: that he is adored by many. That blog post wrote about the devices employed by the scriptwriters to make him sympathetic. It worked. But by the end it had worked too well, and even the wondrous Liam appeared, well, a bit of a sap.

He goes through hell and back to save his daughter. Battered, bruised, he gets her home and she promptly goes off with her mother and her stepfather, waving bye bye to her rescuer. Liam's sole return for all the effort is to give her an amazing, treat which she does at least bother (just) to say thank you for. I can't have been the only person watching who thought he'd have been better off leaving her to her fate.

So, his daughter is a selfish bimbo. What does that make the character? No one acknowledges his actions, and he gets no reward. Now, you could argue that a father's selfless love doesn't think to ask for a reward but being a doormat is not a shining example of parenthood. If all he wants is 'to make his daughter happy', then that's as wet as a Miss World contestant simpering about World Peace. Even Liam can't retrieve his character from being wetter than the Atlantic.

Maybe you're thinking, that's Liam in Taken. It's nothing to do with MY characters. But I have read many stories which start with a character being put upon. Their partner doesn't appreciate them. Their boss doesn't appreciate them. Their children/parents/friends/pets don't appreciate them. But still the character carries on, cheerfully putting up with being dumped on and only occasionally sighing wistfully.

A few pages down the line they will turn and then the story will get going - but by then it will be Too Late. If the reader gets that far, they'll be so fed up with the Poor Little Me character they'll be rooting for the boss/partner/child/dog.

Do you know anyone with Poor Little Me tendencies in real life? I do. I feel guilty because although I know I ought to be sympathetic to them and their woes, I actually feel like giving them a good shake and telling them to get some backbone. The same in fiction. We're supposed to admire the selfless, instead we really want to give them a slap. No wonder we love reading about baddies.

NEW!!! I've finally got round to organising some course dates....
How to WRITE a Novel: London 3rd May/Birmingham 7th May/
Oxford 8th May/Exeter 21st May/Bath 12th June
How to SELL a Novel: London 24th May/Exeter 4th June/


Karen said...

I've read there's going to be a sequel to Taken, so maybe he'll get his thanks then!

I know a few 'put-upon' people in real life and rarely feel sympathy, just impatience!

Sarah Hilary said...

I felt the writers of Taken sacrificed all other characters to Liam's, too. His daughter was vapid, as was his wife. And the lesson "Daddy knows best" was a bit hard to swallow. Maybe if the writers had taken more trouble to make the loved ones more "rounded" we'd have seen Liam's plight in a more interesting light?

Dan Purdue said...

I haven't seen Taken, but I felt the same sort of frustration with the only Harlan Coben book I've read. I enjoyed the story but the main character annoyed me. He was a very successful surgeon, so he was well-off, but he lived modestly in order to fund his voluntary work overseas, providing his surgical skills free of charge to disfigured children in developing countries.

He had a gorgeous assistant, but never thought of her "in that way" because he was so in love with his (also gorgeous) wife.

At every opportunity he took the 'right' decision, and by the end of the book I was so fed up with him being so damn perfect I was keeping my fingers crossed that whoever had bungled the attempt on his life and set the story in motion would come back and finish the job.

I definitely prefer characters with a few more rough edges. Without flaws they just don't seem real enough.

Sarah Duncan said...

A sequel to Taken? They should have me on board as script doctor!

I would have ditched the remarried mother story. Teenage children pushing the boundaries is standard, and there's always one parent whose boundaries are closer than the other. Liam/boring old dad could have been predicting disaster and the daughter and wife could have just rolled their eyes and it would have been utterly believable.

The deep unattractiveness of perfect people is one of life's conundrums. I've always believed that we fall in love with people because of their faults, not despite them and I think the same is true for characters.