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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