A Personal Tale of Directing The Reader’s Support
While I do love near enough all forms and genres of fiction (and fully accept that the ones I’m not so wild about still have a legitimate and important place in the wider world of fiction), I would be lying if I said that sci-fi and fantasy were not among my top five favourite genres. Recently, I’ve been especially fond of stories which blend the elements of sci-fi and fantasy by creating futuristic fantasy worlds such as Star Wars or Peter Newman’s The Vagrant which I mentioned last week. Naturally, therefore, it only follows that the novel I’m painstakingly working on just now is set in a futuristic fantasy world.
The trouble I’ve had developing the story, however, had nothing to do with world building or any of the other challenges we might expect to face when writing sci-fi/fantasy. It was more basic than that. Try as I might, I found myself constantly sympathising with the bad guys. Like many sci-fi stories, much of the conflict in my novel revolves a legitimate governing authority and a group of revolutionaries. Unlike many other sci-fi/fantasy stories, the revolutionaries in my story are the bad guys. I thought it would be a piece of cake to write.
I was wrong. Try as I might, I found it almost impossible to create a plausible plot in which the people might rebel against a truly virtuous government (besides, when is a government ever a pure paradigm of virtue?).
No problem, I thought. I’ll simply make them a flawed but basically well-intentioned government.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. Violent revolution needs something to spark it off and that something is seldom a government who are maintaining a status quo of relative peace, freedom and prosperity, even if they do make a few mistakes. To make my story work, my rebels needed something to substantial to rebel against and that meant there had to be an unforgivable and cataclysmic failure (if not an act of wanton evil) on the part of the legitimate government.
So I decided that my nation had lost a war and was forced to make hefty reparations to their enemies (among other things), resulting in the new government (instituted by the winners in the war) enforcing outrageous tax hikes on the working classes while the wealthy aristocracy continued to live in comfort. The people now had a reason to be angry and rebellion had begun. Unfortunately, I suddenly found myself sympathising with my own bad guys. Vive la revolution was all I could think; and if I was rooting for the bad guys, I was quite sure any future readers I might have would be too. It didn’t help that the main antagonist, who served as the leader of the rebels, was one of the most complex and compelling characters I had ever written (even if I do say so myself).
Somehow, I had to sway the reader’s support to the favour of the protagonist. My initial plan was to make him an undercover operative, who had been sent by his government to spy out the rebels and, if possible, undermine their efforts. In theory it was an decent enough story (if a little boring), but with reader sympathies firmly in the camp of the bad guys, I found it an almost impossible task to write that story without thoroughly ruining the ending for the reader.
I decided to consult The Story-Writer’s Oracle (also known as ‘history’) for help. I researched the villains and despots of modern and ancient history and asked what common threads ran through them to make them so despicable. I began with Hitler, since he and my antagonist had the most in common to begin with: both were soldiers in a war which their country lost, both were appalled by the mess their country was left in post-war and both saw themselves as would-be saviours of their nation. Because of these similarities, it was quite an easy thing to impose a few of Hitler’s more unstable character traits on to my own antagonist. But I needed to go further still. My antagonist was not interested in ethnic cleansing or any of the other atrocities we associate with Hitler, so simply giving him a Hitleresque temperament was not enough. I continued my research and eventually discovered that a more recent historical figure – one Saddam Hussein – apparently saw himself as the reincarnation of King Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon circa 605 BC – 562 BC.
Brilliant! I thought, for it had just so happened that one of the ancient myths of my fantasy world involved an king who travelled to the castle of the gods in the sky and negotiated a thousand years of prosperity for his nation. I will let my bad guy see himself as the reincarnation of this man.
I went further still. I considered people like Pol Pot, who apparently forbade outsiders from approaching him unless they were summoned. I also considered the god complexes and the paranoia common to figures like Nero and the Pharaohs of Egypt. Before long, I had enough dark and disturbing character traits to create a whole legion of antagonists that the reader could not fail to dislike because they were reminiscent of some of the most unstable and ruthless characters in history.
Of course, this was only the first step. I had managed to remove sympathy from the bad guys but that does not necessarily mean that the reader would support the legitimate government.
But wait just a minute! I thought. They don’t need to support the legitimate government. They only need to support the protagonist of the story.
So instead of being a government operative, I decided to make my protagonist a neutral observer who became involved in the revolution… only to be disturbed by what he saw until he himself was forced to rebel against his fellow rebels. It was no longer about a good government vs. bad rebels; it was about one man’s simple wish to survive coming into conflict with his nation’s need to be rid of a dangerous and totalitarian regime which threatened to enslave everybody. From there, I was able to develop a protagonist who was able to rival the complexity and substance of the antagonist; a protagonist with needs and wants which would pull him in different directions; a protagonist whom the reader would support and sympathise with, regardless of how flawed the government was or how justified the antagonist’s initial grievances may have been.
Now I must apologise for taking you through this long winded saga of how I got my novel to where it is at now, but it seemed the easiest way to share what I have learned as a result of all this. When it comes to writing a story, your hero can be just about anybody: rebel, loyal citizen, rich, poor, slave or free; what matters is that your reader sympathises with their cause. If you’re writing a story where the lines between the good guys and the bad guys less than clear (and I daresay, you probably are if it’s vaguely realistic story) then the key to directing your readers support to the right character rests heavily in this: that you enable them to sympathise with and relate to the protagonist more than antagonist.