Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Taking sides

Listening to a very dull serial on the radio, I realised that I was taking the side of the protagonist, although I didn't particularly like him. Which led me to think about the whole businesss of taking sides. It seems we are - or at least, I am - programmed to take sides. Whether it's a novel or a film, a goody or a baddy, I look for someone to side with. And if the book/film has no-one I can sympathise with, then I lose interest (unless the plot itself is exceptionally exciting). I hated The Talented Mr. Ripley for this reason; I didn't like the hero (I'm sure I wasn't supposed to) and I didn't really like anyone else in the novel, either. Similarly, in the Booker prizewinning A Line of Beauty, I thoroughly disliked the main character, and hence the book. It may have been well-written, but there was no-one it in with whom I could identify. I still don't know why I bothered to finish it.

And I suppose much of life is about taking sides, from gangs in the school playground - even friendly ones - to belonging to clubs, supporting football teams or whatever. Wars are about taking sides. The bloody election is about taking sides.

The election... And I'm still floating. Because I don't like any of the party leaders, so I'm not really on their side (but I shall vote when the time comes, because voting gives me licence to grumble).


  1. I've been thinking about this a lot, and I don't think I've ever seen a decent explanation as to why we 'take sides' when we read (as we all obviously do) - by that I mean, why do we choose to side with someone? I maintain it's not because they're morally good or kind or beautiful. Maybe it's something to do with them facing a dilemma we empathise with, but not always. Hm.

  2. I'm trying to exploit this in the current wip - we naturally ( I hope) feel drawn to 'side with' the viewpoint character, especially when they're telling the story in first person vp - but is it a wise thing to do?

    As for why humans take sides, I think it's all to do with evolution. We had to belong to survive, to belong you need to identify with, to identify with is, basically, to be on the side of. It's all about survival at the most basic level. QED!!!

  3. I think we are programmed to side with viewpoint characters - being inside their heads makes them feel like "us". I agree with Aliya that this isn't really a moral thing - perversely a character need not be likeable for us to like them.

    That makes it a big risk to have a patently unsympathetic character as a narrator - but sympathy here is unrelated to the protagonist's morality.

    To compare and contrast two "serial killer as narrator" novels: Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" is deliberately unsympathetic (although some readers noneless side with him), while Burke Devore in Donald E. Westlake' "The Ax" has the reader rooting for him throughout. Both novels can be read as satires on late 20th-century capitalism, but there is an empathy in Westlake's portrayal which Easton Ellis does not even aim for.

  4. Aliya, I think you're right. It's often the dilemma we identify with almost as much as the character.

    Alis - the survival theory's a good one. I hadn't thought of that.

    Tim - yes. The POV is very important, not least because I guess that's the person we're meant to sympathise with. And I always find myself rooting for the underdog. Gordon Brown has just made his Big Blunder, and while it was stupid, and I'm not a fan, I can't feeling awfully sorry for him. Headline news out of something no-one was supposed to hear? Incredibly bad luck. So just for this evening I'm siding with him.

  5. I also think its something to do with our natural capacity to organise our experience by polarising it into "good" or "bad", hence our tendency to want a religion with both God and the Devil. It means that we can have a less complex, more organised relationship with the book if we polarise the characters within it. This post made me think a lot about my wip - thanks!

  6. Good point, Dee. And as for help towards the WIP, you're very welcome.

  7. I think there's something to the idea that a character, no matter how loathesome, has to have some redemptive feature, and that's enough for at least some of the readers some of the time.

    I think the classic case is Alex in "A Clockwork Orange." An appalling person--yet intelligent (in an undeveloped way). But it's his love of music that makes us say, wait, no, there's something about him that could be saved...

    There's also the character who is fascinating as a viper. Hannibal Lector and Tom Riply both fall into this category for me.

    But I admit I had a great deal fo trouble wading through Martin Amis' "Money." The protagonist was appalling, which was fine. But I also found him annoying, which isn't such a good match...