Sympathy For Unsympathetic Victims

I had expected to write about something else today, but I find my mind focused on recent events.  One of my colleagues died yesterday.  She was 54.  She had a number of other health problems, but they think it was heart failure.  Definitely too much stress in her life.

I was not close to this woman.  To be perfectly honest, she drove me absolutely nuts and had no respect for personal boundaries.  She was not popular here at the office and was a frequent topic of gossip and backbiting.  I admit to saying plenty of ugly things about her behind her back, for which I’m very ashamed right now (though I was at least always kind to her in person).

But I’m not writing this post looking for vindication or sympathy or somebody to say “shame on you”.  It got me thinking about the victims in our books (for those of us who write about murder).  It’s easy to arouse sympathy for victims who were brutalized, who people liked, who were beautiful or kind or mothers or whatever.  But what about people no one liked?  How to you arouse sympathy over the death of someone who many people might feel deserved their fate (Note: I do NOT in any way, shape, or form, believe that my colleague deserved to die.  I’m talking hypothetical, fictional people here).  I have a guy in mind as a victim in a future book who was, in life, a truly horrible person.  My heroine hated his guts and he made her life miserable.  But somebody murders him.  How do you arouse sympathy for that?  The fact of the matter is, there are bound to be detectives and investigators in books (probably in real life too) who think that some victims got what they deserved.  But they still have a job to do.  How do you deal with their internal motivation as heroes or heroines?  Frankly, I think it would be more of a challenge as a writer to somehow take a really horrible character and make the reader sympathetic to them in the end.

What do y’all think?

3 thoughts on “Sympathy For Unsympathetic Victims

  1. How do you arouse sympathy for that?

    By explaining what made them the way they were. Most people, aside from the scum of society, have something that we can relate to-unhappiness, a lack of personal fulfillment, depression, something. I’d say fund what it is and bring it out.

  2. Exactly! That’s why I like to spend so much time in my villain’s head. I always devote an enormous amount of time to working on his or her backstory, figuring out how they got twisted into the monster they become. They’re much more interesting that way. It may not always make it into the book specifically, but it helps me to know it.

  3. I’d either mention people in his life who cared for him–a mother, perhaps–or talk about what he could have been if he had lived. Maybe he could have turned his life around?

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