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We as readers can forgive a sympathetic character for almost anything (we’re likewise just as willing to condemn a character we dislike for even the mildest of bad behaviors… but that’s another post for another day.) We’re willing to overlook theft, destruction of property, lying, and even murder if we like a character and we’re able to understand where they’re coming from and why they did it.
There are, however, certain acts so vile that they can cause your readers to despise your character in so visceral a way that they can taste it. Warning: Use the following with care – they can greatly alter how your audience reacts to not only your characters, but your work overall.
First, we’ll go over each sin, then we’ll discuss what makes them unforgivable, and finally, the ways you can use this knowledge in your story.
Trigger warning: the following contain NON-GRAPHIC references to rape and child abuse.
Unforgivable Character Sin #1: Child Abuse
Children are seen as innocent and pure, and in most people, trigger a protective response. In real-life prisons, guards are often forced to separate pedophiles and other child abusers from general population because they are targeted by murderers and other violent criminals. That means even sociopathic murderers think people who commit child abuse are the scum of the earth.
Unforgivable Character Sin #2: Rape
Rape is one of the most de-humanizing of crimes. It is a crime of power rather than sex, and most people don’t like to think themselves capable of it – read the ‘why unforgivable?’ section for more information on how this affects your reader.
One example of this in recent literature is in the Walking Dead novel Rise of the Governor. About halfway through the book, one of the main characters rapes a woman. After that, he is marked as unredeemable in the minds of readers because he has crossed the moral event horizon.
Unforgivable Character Sin #3: Killing the Dog
If you’re only going to take one thing away from this article, let it be this: Don’t kill the dog.
Many editors and agents will immediately reject a book if the dog dies, and some authors even have clauses in their contracts that say they’re not allowed to kill off canine companions. This is because an ill-thought-out doggie death not only spells out doom for Fido, but can often kill off a readership as well.
And that’s just if your dog dies of benign causes – a character actively killing off a dog (or even just kicking a puppy) is a surefire way to make sure that character is instantly hated.
Should you decide to kill off a dog, it’s usually best to do so at the end of your story. Think of Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows.
Why, when audiences are willing to forgive so many vile behaviors, are they unwilling to do the same for these three? To find this answer, we need to examine why audiences are willing to forgive so much in the first place.
The answer to that lies in your reader’s connection to your character. Effective characters – and all their acts – need to be sympathetic, meaning that we need to be able to understand what they’re going through. We need to be able to look at all the information that’s presented to us, and think, Yeah, I could see myself doing something like that if I were put into that situation. No one wants to feel like a bad person, so in order to forgive ourselves, we’re forced to forgive others for doing the things we can see ourselves doing.
Rape, Child abuse, and dog-killing, however… well, no one sees themselves as capable of doing these things. Even if they are. There’s also this feeling that rape, child abuse, and hurting dogs has absolutely no justification, ever, while many people might think the victim of a murder ‘had it coming’ for whatever reason.
This offers one loophole: if you can make the audience empathize with why the character abused a child, raped, or killed a dog, then they may be willing to forgive it. There needs to be that figurative (or literal) gun to their head. For example, in I Am Legend (spoiler warning), the main character is forced to kill his dog after the dog was infected with the zombie virus. It was a heart-wrenching moment, forcing us to sympathize with Will Smith’s character because we understood.
Be warned, though – your audience’s view of your character and your work will be skewed, and you’ll have to deal with the character’s mental reaction. There’s no coming back from these three things.
How to use these sins in your work
So, does this mean these three acts are completely off-limits in your writing? Heck no!
Using them as plot devices can be especially helpful when you have a villain who is becoming too sympathetic. Having your villain commit any of these acts serves as a point-of-no-return, after which they cannot be redeemed. This works especially well for arcs where the villain’s descent from relatively good to truly reprehensible. It signals to the reader that there will be no redemption at the end of the story, effectively helping you manage their expectations.
Unless you can pull off making these acts sympathetic like I mentioned in the previous section, it’s NEVER a good idea to have your protagonist do any of these things.
Another option is to use less-extreme versions of these sins – your character is simply mean to a child, for example, or kicks a puppy rather than outright killing it.
Inversely, you can make characters more likeable by having them do the opposite. Your protagonist is in a situation where it would be easy for him to take advantage of a woman? Don’t let him do it! Your MC isn’t as likeable as you’d like him to be? Have him care for a stray mutt!
Do you agree that these sins are unforgivable? Did I miss any sins? Let me know in the comments!