Columns > Published on April 23rd, 2015

Storyville: Shifting Sympathies

WARNING: SPOILERS for Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

When it comes to telling a great story, there are good guys and there are bad guys, and they never change—right? WRONG. There are human beings, there are aliens, there are talking dogs—and none of them are 100% pure or entirely evil. Adolph Hitler was an innocent boy once, I imagine, and then his family, the world around him, even his own mental and physical state changed, turning him into a racist dictator hell-bent on world domination. And how many times have angels fallen from on high—one of the most famous being Satan, yes? In your short stories, and especially in your novels, you will need to show us people in all walks of life, succeeding and failing, gaining sympathy, and drawing your hatred. But quite often those loyalties shift. Haven’t you seen a bad guy turn out to be something more, a hero in waiting? Haven’t you seen the hero go bad, and fall, committing dark deeds in the dead of night? We’re going to talk about how to shift sympathies today, those many shades of gray, giving your characters depth, and keeping your story interesting—your audience on their toes.


One of the ways to change your sympathy for the characters in your stories is to shift the power. Imagine a big, burly guy, Raymond, who lurks in the neighborhood—a quiet presence that keeps the local kids on full alert. Just looking at him, we may think he’s a thug, a bully—a danger to others, especially the children. We give him that power based on his appearance and behavior. Now, that little girl next door, Natalie, she doesn’t have a care in the world, or so it seems. She’s sweet, always has a smile on her face, and we see her cooking through a kitchen window, humming a song. Right now you probably can tell who is good and who is evil—the little urchin or the golem. But wait, what is this here? We see the man, Raymond, looking out the window the next day, where he spies Natalie pushed up against the wall by a couple of boys her age, her bike lying on the ground—wheels spinning. She’s in trouble. When he leans out the window and knocks a plant to the concrete alley below, shattering the pot and the tension that has been brewing, she looks up knowingly and smiles those pearly whites. “Oh, hey Ray, whatta ya say?” she chirps toward the big man, the boys looking up. When he crosses his arms, meaty biceps flexing, the kids let her go. When he asks them some questions about their absent fathers, their drunk mothers, they storm off, but not without a warning from him first. “Stay away from Natalie,” he purrs. Now who do you sympathize with—the girl, the beast, or both? What if we show you Natalie later, smoking a cigarette, at ten years old, grinning in the darkness—the giant alone in his apartment crying. If you shift the power, if you shift the control—you shift the perception. These two are in my third novel, Breaker, and it was my goal throughout the book to break a cycle of abuse. Which one was being abused? Well, I can’t tell you that.


Show us the reason for the madness, the struggles for greatness, the flawed angels, and the forgivable monsters.

So that book, Gone Girl, have you read it? Or seen the film? Good stuff. I’ll try not to spoil EVERYTHING, but let me give you a few details and see who you root for, who gets your sympathy. If you see a couple, the wife, Amy, planning a secret scavenger hunt for her distant, busy husband, Nick, who thinks she’s sappy and annoying, you might sympathize with her. All of the places, they are romantic locations—where they kissed, or danced perhaps, secret things that he should know about them. But wait, SHOULD know? Now it starts to feel like a test, a chore—a husband who is being forced to remember some random fact from years ago. Maybe the wife is pick, pick, picking at him—driving him slowly insane. So, are you with Nick now? What if you found out he was having an affair, with some hot young student? With her now, right? And what if the wife gets kidnapped—table turned over, the husband not looking like a suspect right away, but over time, not looking quite so innocent. Is she alive, is she dead? Who are you rooting for now? Is Nick a monster? What if she wasn’t dead at all—what if she set this up to get back at him, and has run away? Back and forth back and forth—violence and sex, perhaps a baby on the way, and maybe at the end she comes home—and maybe she finally shows him just how crazy she is—and maybe Nick finally sees what a monster she really is. Who are you rooting for now? What if he likes it?

See how that story jumps back and forth? I took some liberties with plot, not all of that happened, but you get the idea. On page one you may love the husband and hate the wife. What could change that on page 20? Page 115? Page 300?


Often in our stories and novels we have good guys and bad guys, we cast the characters into traditional roles, right? These are good guys, typically—doctors, cops, teachers, mothers, cowboys, fairies, angels, dogs, birds. These are bad guys, typically—thieves, bums, gangsters, step-mothers, devils, assassins, sharks, wolves. But I’m sure the minute I made this list you started to think of examples that were against type—that Cujo dog that was rabid, Dr. Frankenstein, or a vice cop gone bad. And the same for the bad guys—Robin Hood the thief, Leon the professional assassin, Akela the wolf. The point I’m trying to make here is you can go with type or against type. Or even better, realize that no matter how good your protagonist, they have flaws, they have failed, and they have made mistakes. No matter how evil, there was once an innocent inside that rogue, that killer—perhaps it’s not too late for redemption. Look at all of your characters, the main ones, and the secondary, and give them depth—a range of emotions, a variety of experiences, a mixture of character. I mean, who hasn’t rooted for Hannibal Lecter?


Another way to get you to feel sorry for somebody, to sympathize with a situation, a character, an emotion, is to create empathy—being able to relate. With sympathy there is typically sorrow for someone else’s suffering; with empathy—it’s the ability to understand someone else, and what they’re going through. So take that killer, who is striving for vengeance. If you can’t relate to him killing for his territory, drug dealers and pimps—can you understand how he might protect his daughter, or his son—maybe his wife, from thugs that want to beat them, rape them, or torture them to get information? What if you show that drunk mother in her previous life—before she lost her job, broke her back, had a miscarriage? Haven’t we all had a day go horribly wrong, haven’t we all had our hearts broken? If you take that dark spirit and make it human, show us that monster in a touching and vulnerable moment—things can change. Likewise, that stuck up, rich, asshole of a lawyer—what if we show you why he is that way—his parents always broke, his father screwed over by a big corporation, the boy left homeless when his mother overdosed? Shine some light into the dark, and take some of the sparkle off the pure.


Over the course of your story or novel you will show your protagonist fighting against a conflict—internal and external—trying to DO something, trying to survive or understand or save the world. That conflict should be resolved by the end of your tale, the main character changing in the process. Think of all of the opportunities you have along the way to show that person in conflicts—heroic acts and epic failures—that reveal the heart, or the lack of it, the strength, or weakness—our sympathies changing along the way. And when the problem is finally solved, our sympathy may have shifted—the snake now the protector, the warrior no longer so noble, the villain revealed to be a product of his environment, willing to change, not so rotten after all. What you do on that path is show us the depth of your protagonist, the emotions and behaviors they struggle with. Haven’t you ever yelled at a television screen, or movie screen, or flung a book across the room, “NO, DON’T DO IT!” I’d hate to admit how many times I’ve cried over fictional characters dying on the page, but it’s more than a few times. Don’t even get me started on Game of Thrones—how many times have I changed my allegiance, how many times have I had to let characters go after a brutal death, how many times have I thought to myself, “I’m not sure who is good, and who is bad, and who this show is even ABOUT anymore.” Martin certainly keeps us guessing, doesn’t he?


So as you tell us your next short story, or plan out your next novel, think of all of the ways that you can create deep, layered, authentic characters. Think about the standards and tropes and expectations—and maybe you start there, but certainly don’t stay there. Show us the reason for the madness, the struggles for greatness, the flawed angels, and the forgivable monsters. Somewhere in there you will find a world of gray—with many emotions, experiences, and conflicts—all waiting to be resolved, waiting for their happy ending; or maybe their tragic demise.

About the author

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit

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