Immorality and Motivations

Right now, I’m working on creating believable motivations.  A moral code for someone with very few morals.  This is hard.  Harder than I thought, which explains why I’ve been working on this story for so long in various incarnations–flash fiction came out too cryptic, short story was too short, and now I’m trying to flesh it out in novel form.  Perhaps it’s not length that’s the issue, but finding the adequate scenes and conversations that can show this character’s sense of morality without telling.

But how do I make an inherently unsympathetic character sympathetic?  The character I keep coming back to is Dexter.  He’s a serial killer, but he’s a likable serial killer.  One with a strict moral code that makes sense, at least to him.  Granted, my character is not quite as extreme as Dexter, but she isn’t going to win the Nobel Peace Prize any time soon.  And her family is much, much worse.

From what I’ve researched so far, there seem to be a few tricks of the trade for making unlikable characters more likable.  Not that I have figured out how to implement these yet, but here they are, all the same (DEXTER TV SHOW SPOILERS BELOW!):

  • Balance virtue and vice.  Find the good things about your character, no matter how small, and be sure the reader knows about them.  Example:  Dexter is a serial killer, but he has a strong sense of justice.
  • Humanize them.  All humans have hopes, dreams, and aspirations as well as fears, longings, and concerns.  By incorporating a range of emotions and inner conflicts for your character, you make them easier to relate to.  Example:  Dexter deeply longs to feel the compassion he lacks.  He is a good father and husband, and he tries [however unsuccessfully] to shield his family from the dangers of his lifestyle.
  • Make them pitiable.  L.B. Schulman makes a good case for pity in her blog. If we feel sorry for a character, for whatever reason, we are more likely to forgive them their awful misdeeds.  Example:  Dexter was born in blood, so he says.  He has traumatizing memories of being in that shipping container, covered in his mother’s blood, for days.  Who can blame him for growing up twisted after that?
  • Give them a moral code.  The moral code is important, I think, because it shows that your character is not completely evil for evil’s sake.  They are committing atrocities, sure, but they do have a strict limit to their immorality.  Example:  Dexter only kills the murderers and rapists that the world would be better off without.
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