Angry about something

Writing a sympathetic character you disagree with

Instead of doing NaNoWriMo this year, I’m resuming work on the novel I started last year, Christina’s Portrait. One of my tasks is to add development to a minor character who I feel should have more importance. Here’s how I introduce him:

And when we pulled up in front of his house, we shuddered.

Hanging from the flagpole on his front porch was a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with the black rattlesnake. On his front window, he had a sign, “Warning! Insured by Smith & Wesson.”

That’s when we noticed the truck in the driveway with a faded “Trump 2020. Make America Great Again” bumper sticker and the rifle rack against a back window that had an NRA sticker on it.

Maya tugged on my blouse. “Let’s get out of here. This whack job is going to get us straight-up killed. He could have been one of those…who stormed the Capitol, for all we know.”

I wanted to agree. Just the Trump bumper sticker made me uneasy. I had to settle myself down.

“We came all the way here. We’re not leaving now.” I straightened my shoulders and rang the doorbell.

I should mention, he’s supposed to be a sympathetic character.

If you follow my website, you know my political views. So, why would I write a sympathetic character I completely disagree with? And how do you write such a character?

There’s a tendency of folks on one side to write off those on the other as crazy, stupid, racist, and, well, deplorable. Yes, there are people like that. (Certain members of Congress, pastors, media personalities, and the immediate past President of the United States come to mind.) But to me, it’s a lazy way of looking at people, and we’re falling for the same demonization games they are. People come to political viewpoints for different reasons. Some come from legitimate concerns about the state of our country and the failure of government to address serious problems.

We should also not be so quick to ridicule those caught up in conspiracy theories. It’s too easy for people to get drawn into them. The folks who gathered in Dallas look foolish, but each of them has some big hole in themselves that only magical resurrections and a reinstatement of President Trump can fill.

If we want to bring our country back together and get through our current problems, we need to understand what attracts people to certain ideas. How did their experiences, upbringing, and the places they came from shape those beliefs? How are our institutions failing these people to the point they want to destroy them? If we understand the folks on the other side, we can draw them away from the extremes and work together to solve the problems we all face.

This is where fiction can help. We can get into the hearts and minds of people who are different from us. We can see them as people like ourselves, with hopes and fears, joys and heartbreaks. Fiction can help us see our common humanity. If we can open ourselves to listen to their stories, we encourage them to open themselves to ours.

How do we create sympathetic characters we disagree with? It starts by listening. Urban Confessional provides some great resources about how to listen without judgement. Ask open-ended questions. Understand the other person’s reasoning. Resist the urge to react or become defensive. We don’t listen to be swayed or to sway them. We just want to know their stories.

Once you understand those beliefs, how do you make a character who holds them sympathetic? First, understand that political beliefs are only one part of a person. A man can be a devoted father, a loving husband, a motivating coach of your daughter’s softball team—and still vote for the candidates you dislike. Second, understand the personal reasons someone assumes a political viewpoint. Is that person rebelling against parents who had a different view? Is the candidate the father figure she had always yearned for and will do anything to please? Did someone get sucked into a social media rabbit hole that led them to destructive ideas? Does this person fear losing their job and the ability to take care of their family if policies change? Are they afraid of losing themselves in a changing world?

Creating a well-rounded character, sympathetic or not, takes work. But it’s worth it to develop a realistic character readers can engage with. Characters like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and the Joker stick more in our mind than any set piece or witty dialogue. If you develop the character well enough, they can be the foundation of a series because readers will want to spend time with them again.

When you engage with people whose views differ from yours, you might be afraid they will persuade you. And they might be afraid that you’ll persuade them. I have certain positions from which I will never budge. But it is possible to find things we share in common and areas for agreement. And we can see each other as human beings. If we can see each other as people we disagree with instead of subhuman embodiments of evil, our country would be more peaceful and productive. That’s why one of the best services we as writers can do for society is to create sympathetic characters we disagree with.