My main characters is a witch, and at one point in the story she performs a human sacrifice, to gain new powers to be able to defeat the antagonist. But I'm afraid this may make her unlikable for the reader. The man she kills is a terrible human being, but will it be enough? She will be shocked at first, obviously, but she will not repent what she did, because it would be out of character... How can you make a character do something as terrible and still make the reader root for them?
There’s a lot happening in this question.
I’m going to start at the last question and then try to address the rest of this, step by step.
How can you make a character do something as terrible and still make the reader root for them?
I’ve got good news and bad news for you here.
Good news: there are plenty of people who just love reading about characters who do horrible, terrible, no-good things.
Bad news: you can’t make your readers do anything, they’re stubborn like that.
What I mean is, look at pop culture, look at Hannibal Lecter, Loki, Spike, Severus Snape, The Master, look at all of these villainous, or anti-villainous characters who people either love to hate, or plain old love. There is plenty of room in fiction for characters to do awful things and still have a following.
The thing is to develop a well rounded, understandable, interesting character and give them reasons for the bad things they do – not to try to make excuses (oh it’s okay to bully children if you have a tortured personal history …), but to make these characters as human and relatable as possible.
she performs a human sacrifice, to gain new powers to be able to defeat the antagonist
Now, I am all for layered, troubled, and flawed protagonists. But I’m going to say pretty outright here, performing a human sacrifice, no matter how much the ends might go toward justifying it, is a pretty villainous act. I’m not going to tell you to cut this, this is a pretty significant piece of character development and a pretty telling piece of a plot, but you’ve got to consider the implications of this sort of thing.
If you put this kind of thing in a story, and the character performing the sacrifice doesn’t face any consequences (ie, at the very least she should probably be traumatised by what she had to do, even if she doesn’t share that with other characters), it’s going to feel like it’s a bit of a cheap way out. Taking the life of a human being is one of those things that is pretty much right up there in terms of being a heavy cost to pay.
One of my favourite speeches about this concept is from the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who – having been given orders by the Time Lords to wipe out the Daleks, he hesitates:
At what point does a hero become a villain? Even in a situation where it doesn’t mean getting your hands dirty, to place yourself in the position as the arbiter of life and death means crossing a moral threshold which is impossible to come back from.
The man she kills is a terrible human being, but will it be enough?
Is there anyone who is a terrible enough human being that it justifies their life being taken? Who decides where that line is? Can just anyone decide that another person is terrible enough to deserve to die?
This kind of reasoning is a slippery slope into victim blaming – can anyone perpetrate a crime against someone else and then justify it by saying ‘but they deserved it?’
In your fiction this kind of moral argument is going to be pretty weighty. Acknowledging that weight in the story, and having your character need to deal with that and the fallout of her decision is going to go a long way toward making this work.
She needs to defeat the antagonist. The cost is to take a human life. She does so. She walks away victorious and is never bothered again about that whole murder thing
She needs to defeat the antagonist. The cost is to take a human life. She tries every avenue to avoid that cost. In the end she is forced to take that life and save the day. She spends the rest of her life living with the burden of what she’s done and trying to atone for that act.
The first one reads like a villain’s backstory, the second one as more of a grim rumination on the nature of heroism. Now, you’ve said that repenting would be out of character, but repenting is more about expressed remorse, in my understanding. Could it be that while she doesn’t openly admit the toll it takes on her, she works on redeeming herself privately?
I’m afraid this may make her unlikable for the reader
It may well be that this character is unlikeable to many readers. But what does likability entail? Do all people go to fiction to find characters that they will like, or do they look for characters that are going to be interesting, challenging, and understandable?
I mean, we’re not going to brunch with this character, we’re setting out on a gruelling mission to defeat evil, or whatever it is that she’s facing.
Think more about:
- Is this the kind of character that you, as a reader, would want to follow along on this journey?
- Is she someone that is compelling?
- Are her struggles understandable?
- Can we grow to respect her decisions and actions even if we may not personally agree with them?
- Are we going to be anxious and sympathetic as she faces moral conundrums and makes decisions that may or may not line up with our own ethical codes?
And on a final note, you might want to look into the effect that killing has on people’s mental states. Even if your character feels entirely justified and feels that there’s no other option for her to take, it is a traumatic experience.
This is a pretty big question, and it’s the kind of situation that is going to take a lot of work to get right. So I hope this helps, and if you have further questions, do send them in.
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