Building Reader Empathy for an Unlikeable Character (Analyzing Fairest by Marissa Meyer)

I recently finished Fairest by Marissa Meyer, and it blew me away. I already knew Meyer could write wildly entertaining tales with likeable protagonists (Cinder, Scarlet, Cress). With Fairest Meyer proved herself just as adept at slipping into the mind of a sociopath.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Fairest is a companion novel to the Lunar Chronicles that tells the backstory of the villain Queen Levana. Levana is evil: a rapist and a murderer several times over. Yet, as I was reading the book, I felt that I was able to, if not completely sympathize with her, still understand Levana enough to empathize with her.

So, I got to wondering: How did Meyer make us empathize with an evil character? Here’s what I came up with.


1. Pain. I think pain is one of the most effective ways of getting a reader to empathize with a character. Young Levana grows up lonely, unloved by her parents and abused by her cruel older sister, and ostrasized because of a disfiguring childhood injury. It's hard not to feel bad for what she's gone through.

2. Need for love. Because of her lonely upbringing, Levana craves love, and the majority of her evil deeds stem from this deepseated universal need.

3. Gradual progression. Like the proverbial frog in a boiling pot of water, Levana’s evil schemes don’t come fully formed. Instead, they develop gradually. A passing thought turns into a wisp of a plan, into something better thought out. If she had simply come out a decided to kill the child who was the rival to her throne, we would have recoiled. But it's a progression. First we see her pride at being the acting regent for the child for 12 years, and then her gradual realization that she’s a good queen, and then the wish that she wouldn’t have to give up her throne when the child came of age. The earliest steps in this progression are thoughts anyone might have, and yet it leads somewhere quite frightening.

4. Consequences and self awareness. Without going into detailed spoilers, Levana doesn’t come out unscathed in her final crime. It hurts her deeply, and she’s filled with self loathing even as she knows she’s passed the point of no return. This feeds the reader's sense of justice served.

Now, dear readers, your turn. Have you read any books where the author made you empathize with an unlikeable character?

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  1. When it comes to likeable unlikeable characters, my mind first goes to Humbert Humbert (Lolita) and Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces). It has been a few years since I read the latter, though, so I don't recall if I was actually empathetic, or just entertained. More recently, there's Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, and I'm sure there are plenty of others that I just can't bring to mind right now.

    Knowing a character's background and motivations certainly help foster empathy, or sometimes it's simply circumstances that put a jerk in more peril than he or she deserves. But really, if authors can get me to pull for a horrible person, they're doing something right. That, or I'm a horrible person. (It's probably a little of both.)

    1. I liked Nick Dunne too. Probably cuz Amy was so much worse.

    2. I don't so much think of Nick Dunne as the villain in Gone Girl. It's really almost as if each character is the protagonist of his/her part of the book...if that makes any sense. So each character takes a turn as the protagonist and each takes the turn as the antagonist; therefore, there really isn't a true villain...

  2. Have you read Marie Lu's The Young Elites series?

    There's more than one villain - multiple villains - that show up at different places throughout the books, and that aren't always villainous until you already think you know them. And many of the characters that aren't villains have major character flaws or have treated someone poorly and caused suffering for others. As I read, I often found myself thinking, "s/he isn't that least not as bad as..." I don't want to give anything away, so I won't be more specific, but I really, really enjoyed the emotional manipulation Marie Lu performed on me as I read these books...

    She used many of the same literary devices and conflicts and plot devices as Marissa Meyer did to create the same kind of empathy in the reader. Oftentimes, I found myself choosing to support, the cliché is so apt here, "the lesser of two (or sometimes three or four) evils."