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Dangers of being sympathetic to the killer

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I wrote a piece of flash fiction as a mental exercise. I happened to listen to Glen Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” and happened to watch an episode of “Samurai Jack.” “Moonlight Serenade” is a song without words, though sometime later decided to add words, I believe, because they missed the point. “Jack” is a cartoon that is almost silent. So I wrote a sensual piece of flash fiction of a young guy and girl dancing. The story begins after the music had started and ends before the piece has played out.

Three-quarters of the way through the story, the couple begin the process of dying in a mass shooting. She dies instantly. He isn’t really ever aware he is dying so much as he is trying to process the sudden changes such as her starting to fall to the ground and him trying to prevent it. His end is more one in confusion. Overall, it’s a sensual, physical piece of the last two minutes of this couple.

I sat it down for a while and picked it up a few days later. I realized it wasn’t bad and started thinking about the family, the killer, and the family of the killer. I have thought about writing companion pieces, also as flash fiction.

Our society does a lot to suppress aggression. Once upon a time, someone could say, “I am big. I am strong. I have a rock (knife or sword),” and it would resolve a conflict. It was a functional conflict system from our early primate days until the recent past. Now we do two types of behavior that render that dysfunctional. The first is that you likely have to phone in your complaint. Being big, strong and possibly having a weapon is an impotent strategy. The second is that threats to prevent violence are being suppressed as not being PC. Inappropriate language is like the rattle of a rattlesnake. It is a warning. Killers are not high functioning, emotionally balanced people.

What are the dangers of painting a sympathetic view of the killer through the family of the killer’s perspective and in seeing the obvious interior dysfunction of the killer by seeing inside his mind?

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6 answers

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We tend to think of fictional characters in terms of "Hero" and "Villain" when this should not be a case. The character of focus in your story is the "Protagonist" and the element directly in his or her path from achieving his or her goal is the "Antagonist". These terms do not mean good and evil binaries but rather their relation both to the audience and the other character. Who's side is the story showing to the audience. A protagonist need not be good and an antagonist need not be evil. Consider "Breaking Bad" where the meth cooking Walt is a protagonist to his DEA Brother-in-law who's horror at the depravities of the drug kingpins in his jurisdiction resolves him more to stop the biggest Kingpin, even if he's family.

Similarly I make the argument that the antagonist in Mulan isn't Shan Yu (the name for the boring Hun leader, who is clearly a villain). Shan Yu really doesn't cause any problems for Mulan's victory and has nothing against her. It's Mulan's society and their strict enforcement of gender roles that keep her from kicking Shan Yu's ass. Compare the scene where Mulan's CO, Captain Shang, learns Mulan is a woman vs. Shan Yu's discovery that Mulan is "The Soldier from the Mountain." While both nearly kill her, the former is because her culture holds that any woman who joins the army (a boys only club) should be killed, where as "The Soldier from the Mountain" is the one person who handed Shan Yu a massive defeat despite Yu's superior numbers, and thus the biggest threat in the room.

Just because the killer in your story has a backstory you feel is worth telling, doesn't mean he's being protrayed as a hero for his actions, but that he is being portrayed as a protaganist in a perspective flip on the story we first saw. This is hardly new, as Malificent, Wicked, Paradise Lost, and arguably MacBeth are told from what should be the point of view of what would be terrible people who did terrible things for reasons. The recent film Avengers: Infinity War gave us great sympathy for a purple cgi giant... who mass murdered half of all life in the universe. Untold numbers of sentient creatures were wiped out by this genocidal monster and the film was hyped as "his story" for all intents and purposes. And what makes him so scary... is that the film shows he's capable of very powerful love and he's not seeking power or glory or accolades for his mass murder. He feels like everyone knows the answer to the problem but no one is willing to live with doing the job... so he'll bear that guilt for the greater good.

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/a/48649. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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We often use the word "sympathise" to mean agree with or approve of. But that is not what it means (or not what it should mean) when we are talking about the reader sympathizing with a character in fiction.

In this context, sympathy means, to feel as they feel. The root of the word is from the Greek, sun- ‘with’ + pathos ‘feeling’. To feel with. It is not about approving the feeling. It is not about recommending the feeling. It is about having the feeling.

And we all have feelings that could lead us to do bad things. We all have feeling that result from our having done bad things. We can very easily, therefore, sympathize with villains, because their feelings are our feelings.

Your story, of course, will depend very much on whether we do actually sympathize with the villain, whether we do recognize the feelings they have, whether we detect in ourselves the same feelings in responses to the same events, whether or not we act on them in the same way.

On that score, the great difference between us and fictional people is that we are much less likely to act on our feelings, bad or good, than they are. They serve as our proxies, to act on our feelings for us without our having to risk or suffer the consequences of acting on them ourselves. But it is precisely for this reason what we need to sympathize with the protagonist and with the villain: not because we approve, but because their are our emotional proxies, and they cannot be effective in that role unless they feel as we feel, and we feel as they feel. Without sympathy, there is no story.

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What are the dangers of painting a sympathetic view of the killer through the family of the killer’s perspective and in seeing the obvious interior dysfunction of the killer by seeing inside his mind?

The danger is in becoming an apologist for the villain, and losing the reader's immersion. I'm not saying it can't be done, but for the most part readers do not want to be on the side of the villain, and it would be very easy to screw up this sympathetic view.

Through his family: You might generate sympathy for the villain's family without generating sympathy for the villain. The villain's parents do not believe their kid is guilty. But if they are apologists for a mass shooting or the rape and murder of a child, if they are making excuses for why that was justified, you won't find any reader sympathy there, either.

Through their dysfunctional mind: A small chance of understanding if the villain is clearly convinced others are trying to kill them or their loved ones so their act is in self-defense. But this conviction could not be based in racial or bigoted violence. Even a villain that truly believes homosexual women threaten all of humanity and thus must be raped and murdered will not gain sympathy with readers. Same for racial bias or other bigotries. Sure, they might truly believe all redheads are squid aliens that have to be stalked and stabbed to death, but their true belief will not generate sympathy in readers, only horror.

You might be able to get away with that by invoking "magic", for example the body is not the real person, they are literally possessed by a demon or being forced by the devil or something.

Obviously all of this is my opinion. I don't think sympathy can be achieved once the horrors of innocent death reach a certain level; at that point the scales are permanently tipped and locked to the dark side. The author them trying to tilt them back the other way will then break reader immersion, make them recall they are reading fiction and an author wrote it, and then perhaps make them consider the author too weird to continue.

Once your villain has killed a room full of innocent dancing teenagers (sexualized or not), IMO, by "real world rules", they are irredeemable. Nothing they can do will make up for those lost and ruined lives.

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It depends on what you are trying to achieve. The popular, traditional structure of novels is becoming tired in a more informed world. It is not until recently that villains have enjoyed a comprehensive POV. Villains are bad period. Whether it be witches, dragons, Injuns, Germans, Commies, Aliens - they are all bad and their evil needs no explanation. In that spirit, killers kill - who cares why?

Vigilante killers are often given motives (Death Wish, The Equalizer). Dexter is perhaps the most beloved serial killer of all time.

Our tribalism, patriotism, and racism also affect our view of killing. Kidnap our hero's daughter and he can murder an entire tribe in pursuit of her safe return without losing his hero status.

More progressive, comprehensive storytelling demands the writer advocate for both sides, a "trial" in effect. The suspense is created manipulating the reader's empthy between characters as the story unfolds.

Life is not so simple as literature would like it to be. If we view the same story: half of America will view Donald Trump as the hero and Hillary Clinton as the villain, the other half - vice-versa.

Amadeus said, "Once your villain has killed a room full of innocent dancing teenagers (sexualized or not), IMO, by "real world rules", they are irredeemable. Nothing they can do will make up for those lost and ruined lives."

A skilled writer can advocate for the villain: who sent the villain to war at the age of 18 to witness and take part in the darkest of atrocities? Who, knowing the villain's mind wasn't right allowed him back into society?

Many stories go beyond the simple notion good vs evil. Is Hannibal Lector really a villain? Who is to blame for unleashing the Terminator?

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If the villain is crazy, then you could get the audience to agree with him by presenting exclusively the information that his crazy mind is processing. In the same way that a crazy person can't really "decide not to be crazy," (because the truth is not available to them), if you phrase things in the right way and conceal enough of the details, the audience will have no option but to accept that they're reading the story of a hero.

For example,

Tonight is the night. Decades of oppression have built tensions to a breaking point. While tragic, this night is necessary. I never asked to be caught in the crossfire, but I've been forced to fight a war I didn't start. I don't want this duty, but my people need me to carry it out for them: to do what they are not strong enough to do. History will decide how to remember me, but tonight, I decide history.

Because all of the details have been left out, this could be anyone from a school shooter to General George Washington. Vague platitudes about justice can be used to justify virtually anything. Just as a court has to hear the specifics of a case to make a judgement, your audience won't be able to judge anything if all they hear is mushy manifesto dialogue about how somebody wants to change the world. For all they know, the protagonist could be preparing to launch an Internet startup.

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Sympathizing with the killer. Isn't that the entire basis of any revenge story?

You stole John Wick's car? You killed John Wick's dog?

And the way I understood the movies is, you are supposed to root for John Wick.

other classic examples of revenge as the main plot: The count of monte cristo, Ben Hur ( a biblical story) , Hang'em high.

Now more recently, we have the Joker.

Revenge story is a staple of literature, has always been.

The target of revenge is becoming more and more nonspecific.

Now it is often just against the system, society, injustice, and personal affront.

Whether/how you want to approach the subject is entirely up to you.

Our society is very tolerant, and very desensitized, it is really hard to imagine you can top the Joker or John Wick, in terms of the lack of motivation, level of violence, or the body count....

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