Matt A.'s picture
Matt A. December 19, 2013 - 7:31pm

We've all heard at some point in our writing education that we need to have a compelling character that we root for. Someone to care about. I understand this, but how can there be successful novels like The Talented Mister Ripley--someone who is up to no good and yet I find myself hoping he gets away with his twisted crimes?

I'm sure there are other examples, but in regards to Mr Ripley, how can an author get away with a novel (or a series of novels in Highsmith's case) about bad people doing bad things? Admittedly, this wasn't the best book in the world, but it was oddly entertaining. Is it because Mr Ripley is obviously a sick person and we feel empathy for that side of him? Is it because we all have a hidden sick side to ourselves that enjoys this stuff? What's the deal?

PS--to our esteemed R. Thomas, a possible Storyville topic maybe?

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 19, 2013 - 8:54pm

I think that it stems from the author finding something deplorable that both good and bad people can sympathize with, and then having system interact with the character in a negative way, thus making us sympathtic to their plight. Once we are sympathetic we will have some sort of empathy and hope the best for them. 

I think it's all a psychology game. You just have to find something that everyone detests, psych wards, politics, maybe religion and have them in a conflict with that. Make them an under dog. But most importantly, make them active, active, active. We love people who do things.


I don't know. maybe.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 19, 2013 - 9:43pm

A lot of times having them being both good and bad does a lot- I think of Tony Soprano, or Vic Mackay.  Bad guys, but family men with good sides and so on.

But also, there is definitely a side to us that wants to do things we can't and shouldn't.  It's fantasy, who doesn't want to be a mobster and make someone an offer they can't refuse.  It's how we wish we could fight back against the world that we feel has wronged us.  It's how we wish we could be above it all, beyond the rules.

And Jose, I think, got it right.  We love people who do things, we love action!  It's our primal side that's a part of us, but rarely if ever gets to be expressed.  Who doesn't feel suppressed in this day and age?  

Another thought- sociopaths and narcissists tend to be very charismatic.  Their blind belief in themselves, their ability and willingness to do or say whatever people want to hear...  People often follow or are drawn to those types.  So, when Mr. Ripley comes along...

Vonnegut Check's picture
Vonnegut Check from Baltimore December 24, 2013 - 8:53pm

Here's a fitting excerpt from a Rolling Stone interview with Vince Gilligan:


You don't think so, do you?

I maintain that he doesn't. In the early days, especially writing the pilot, I worried so much that Walt wouldn't be likeable. It's funny, I bent over backwards to give the audience reasons to sympathize with him. I was nervous – anxiety-ridden, as I typically am – that what I was saying in that script was interesting enough for the audience. Watching that first episode, I probably overdid that a bit. In hindsight, I've learned the audience will go along with a character like Walt so long as he remains interesting and active, and is capable about his business. People like competency. What is it people like about Darth Vader?  Is it that he's so evil, or that he's so good at his job? I think it might be the latter. All the fears I had – "Boy, no one's gonna sympathize with this guy"– turned out to be unfounded, which was a very interesting revelation.




Strange Photon's picture
Strange Photon from Fort Wayne, IN is reading Laurie Anderson lyrics December 25, 2013 - 6:18am

This is all about that topic of antiheroes and the modern day appetite for them. A VERY GOOD READ!

Angel Colón's picture
Angel Colón from The Bronx now living in New Jersey is reading A Big Ol' Pile of Books December 26, 2013 - 5:45pm

I think a key concept here is that charisma isn't necessarily reliant on morals. A real scumbag can be quite likeable and an amazingly wonderful, giving person can come off like an utter bore.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal December 26, 2013 - 7:35pm


Not only that, but a scumbag is often, maybe almost always, MORE charismatic than a moral, giving, etc. person.

Jose F. Diaz's picture
Jose F. Diaz from Boston is reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel December 26, 2013 - 8:07pm

Case in point....HItler.