How would you approach the following...?


May 8, 2017
A story where it emerges the main character, for whom sympathy and empathy will have been established, is really:

A: a neo-Nazi?

B: a paedophile?

C: a serial rapist?

As a writer (or a reader), what do you think a story where that occurs would require in order to be readable? To leave readers glad they read it rather than simply glad it's over? Do you think it could be done? I'd like to hear your thoughts.


I have my very own plant pot!
Jan 4, 2018
North-east England
Really tough. The first thing would be to ask yourself if you really need to go that extreme. There are few stories that really need a sympathetic view of a serial rapist.

That said, one tactic is to view such a character through the eyes of someone else who belatedly discovers the dark side of the "main" character (I use quotes because the viewer may end up as the main character). I mentioned this in another thread recently but Bernhard Schlink's The Reader is a good example of this approach, where both the narrator and the audience only learn about Hannah's crimes late in the book.

The Reader works because Hannah's story asks a bigger question about how a seemingly normal human being can commit horrible crimes. In that context, Schlink has to show that Hannah has feelings, needs, vulnerabilities and admirable qualities: curiosity, a desire to improve herself and an ability to love and to inspire love. Once we get that, he forces us to confront the dilemma that such a person can also commit true evil. So, in this case, it was absolutely necessary for Schlink to create sympathy for the character before revealing her crimes.


Member and remember
Mar 25, 2013
First, I would make it neither SF nor F. Set it in the real world, because these are real-world issues and deserve serious, real-world handling. Then I would take these questions over to various lit forums where the folks can provide not only better answers but good examples. I don't know The Reader, but I would cite John Fowles' deeply creepy The Collector as another example of how to handle a truly perverted character.


Level 30 Geek Master
Dec 9, 2015
I'm recalling a Harrison Ford movie, where he ends up being the murderer. We go into the movie sympathetic to the character (because it's Harrison Ford), and as events start to unfold, we sympathize with him for these unfortunate circumstances. We even forgive him his "indiscretion" with the victim, because he's so obviously regretful (and he's Harrison Ford).

I'm just saying, it can work - but it'll be tough. Not all characters are Harrison Ford!

(Dang if I can't remember the name of that movie!)


Happy Easter!
Jul 14, 2005
For me, to find the story readable, the character needs to be on a serious journey of remorse and recompense... or the story needs to become about the hero who will do justice upon this villain.


She turned me into a newt.
Oct 26, 2013
I would think there has to be hope that he or she will reform, or that there were extenuating circumstances for their crime. (A horrible childhood history helps in some cases.)
Either that or make the real villain even worse: either more evil, or about to do something really big like destroy the world, and only our flawed hero can save it.

I'm thinking here of Thomas Covenant, or Dexter, or even the newer Sabrina.

Another way may be to make him fairly inept , or just ridulously bad at his evil.


Feb 13, 2011
In your bedroom wardrobe...
I think as Jo says you need a deeply dark sense of humour to play out, or a redemptive story arc. Some of the characters in Twin Peaks are vile but compelling. But I’d suggest it’s easier done on telly.

Personally I don’t want to read about such things so I’d avoid them anyway.



Well-Known Member
May 4, 2007
I find what makes people tick fascinating, and I don't believe in evil. I think if more people understood the minds of the above list the world would be a better place. I agree a story of remorse and recompense could be really powerful. The younguns have a song from the point of view of an edl member- a protest outside my local mosque got turned on it's head when the edl were invited
In for a cup of tea and a football match ensued, it's called a lovely cup of tea, lyrics are online

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
It could work, but it would take a lot of effort and considerable skill for it not to seem like a cheap gimmick.


Well-Known Member
Jul 1, 2018
Research would be the key, in my opinion.
I'm order for me to enjoy a story like this, it would need to feel grounded, and bring to light some 9f the darker aspects of humanity.
For that to work, you would have to read very deeply into the psychological underpinnings of these things. Research what makes people into neonazis or paedophile. Thorough investigation is the only way to go, preferably academic sources and literature.
That's my view anyway.

Venusian Broon

Defending the SF genre with terminal intensity
Dec 7, 2011
It's not quite the scenario you laid out (there is no reveal half-way through that the protagonist is actually a child molester, but right from the start that he had been one and it starts with him returning from a 12 years sentence in prison for the offences)

But I'd recommend watching the film The Woodsman (2004) starring Kevin Bacon. Which I agree with a review as being 'compelling, creepy, complex and well-crafted'


Crazed Writer
Jan 5, 2019
somewhere in time and space
Neo-Nazis are similar to gang members and cult followers. They join neo-Nazi groups to have a sense of family and belonging, and they use other races and ethnic groups as scapegoats for why their lives are so messed up. You can make a sympathetic character out of one of them if you show hardship in the character's life leading them to join a neo-Nazi group and become brainwashed by the ideology.

It would be more difficult with a pedophile or a serial rapist because their crimes are less influenced by others and more personal to the victims. You would need to show some really traumatic past that pushes the character in that direction, and even then I don't think they would retain the reader's sympathy (maybe a sense of understanding, but not sympathy) once you revealed their secret. If you set the reveal at the end, reader sympathy isn't an issue. I read a book once about the murder of a little girl, and the narrator turned out to be the killer. This was not revealed until the end, so I did not have to force myself to sympathize with him in order to read further.


Dec 10, 2012
x² + y² = r²:when x~∞
For me a lot would have to do with how cleverly you might craft the whole thing.
Still: However.

Having a character who saves the cat to get closer to their young owners so they can rape them because they hate them and what they represent, might be a huge turnoff.

I realize we don't mean to put all of those into one character(do we); however they are pretty sensitive issues.

I recall once being able to sympathize with an insane character in a novel, whose victims were never helpless or innocent. Well not helpless until she murdered them. However and overall there was this bad taste in my mind about the whole thing. I'd have to say, of the three choices listed, that the only one I might come close to sympathizing with and then not toss the book in the trash, when things went south, would be the Neo-Nazi and even that one would have to be crafted very well.

When reading fiction I try to limit the number of works that will lead me down a garden path and then rip my moral fiber out with that sort of betrayal.


Smeerp of Wonder
Staff member
Oct 13, 2008
West Sussex, UK
A story where it emerges the main character, for whom sympathy and empathy will have been established, is really:
There's another reason it might be off-putting apart from the undesirable characteristic itself, which is if it feels like you've artificially kept it from the reader in order to build sympathy first, when in reality it's something the character would be thinking about a lot.


mƎ know duM!
Jun 19, 2018
Personally, I think those are massive issues that in and of themselves most people do not even want to think about. There are many things in this world that most folks would rather ignore to protect their own sense of security, rather than get upset about them and fight. So, I think your chosen skeletons due to their focus, shifts it from upsetting and feeling fooled to something more horrific. Just a little too far past the edge.

That said... in my 1870's western, 211k words long (point to that), we follow roughly 7 years of the protagonists life. About every terrible thing short of being killed and mutilated keeps happening to her. Each situation leads to the next unrelated set of negative circumstances, high points seem to simply build-up good so the next let down hurts worse.

Add to that, we're not sure if she is 'touched' by three spirits, if that means she is insane, is she possessed, confused, multiple personality or what...

So, 210,000 words later, readers are fully invested in the character, they've rooted for her, been relieved when she escapes this bad, overcomes this, makes good with that and so on... All is well, happily ever after and in the last thousand or so words, she thinks back only then revealing...
She is a homicidal psychopath who maneuvered and worked to make every bad thing happen to slaughter hundreds over the years. The spirits were made up childhood friends, and she is playing a game and each of those parts, all simply to generate situations where she can save herself through murder.

However, clues and hints to that are contained at every turn of luck... So, it's simply the missing piece which brings it all together. Thus far, everyone who has read it cheers for her throughout and at the end feels betrayed, sick... yet, each have said they realized that they might have met someone like that in person. However, it's not a massive betrayal, it's simply a revelation wherein they suddenly get it... just not to where they 'led themselves to.'

So it can work, or, it can be too startling. No clues and mine would have been that, another would be too depraved of an issue like you're suggesting.

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Active Member
Nov 2, 2018
A story where it emerges the main character, for whom sympathy and empathy will have been established, is really.
I think the most important thing you have to consider is when, plotwise, this "reveal" will occur. Is this a last-second turn to evil? A horrifying recognition by the audience that the main character has been evil this whole time? Or an acknowledgement of evil, and the slow move towards redemption.

The third is beyond me, personally. That would be a feat of impressive scale to pull off. I think an easier solution (and, maybe, what you're already leaning toward, given the quote above?) would be to do something in the vein of Lolita where the goal is not to redeem the main character or even attempt to give them a redemption arc, but rather to keep pulling the reader in--mostly through horror and sick interest--with a charismatic, friendly, likable character who we know is messed up beyond belief.


Well-Known Member
Oct 11, 2016
Writing vs reading is an exchange and I think the key thing for the writer is to make sure that the exchange pays off for the reader. So I think the question anyone has to ask themselves is if a character reveal like that pays off enough to warrant that kind of decision.

And remember that the more controversial the reveal, the better the payoff has to be because all three of those options force the writer to walk on the edge of a knife, and even if they pull it off successfully, the writer will have to accept potential blowback because the readers are going to have their own tolerance levels for that kind of material and that's not something the writer can control.