The creation of this post has been a curvy path. The original idea came about because of something in The Vampire Chronicles that got me thinking. I tried to write about it, but then I ended up on this whole tangent of why readers might still like a character who has done something bad or seemingly unforgivable. So I decided to shift the focus—instead of talking about one specific series, I’d talk about why we as readers sometimes still love characters who’ve done bad things.
So here we are! Here are my thoughts on the topic, plus a little sidetrack about The Vampire Chronicles because I still couldn’t quite get that incident out of my head.
*Warning: This post contains mentions of rape/sexual assault.*
Characters Who’ve Done Bad Things
Lestat, the MC in The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, rapes a woman on-page in one of his books.
Reaver, the MC in the Fallocaust series by Quil Carter, rapes his boyfriend on-page in the first book.
Sir Robot IV, from the Saga comic series by Brian K. Vaughan, has murdered innocent people, including children (I think).
Henry, the main character in Something Wicked by Carol Oates, was Jack the Ripper.
Snape, a character in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, is prejudiced and bullies children.
None of these characters has a legitimate excuse (e.g. they weren’t being mind-controlled or something).
And yet every single one of these characters is loved by at least a few people. Some of these characters are beloved by the masses. Some of these characters are loved by me.
I know that all of these are not well-known, but I was trying to think of the most extreme examples of horrible actions I could in order to prove a point. I know, however, that there are a million more examples out there of characters who are physically and/or emotionally abusive, who’ve stolen things, who’ve cheated on partners, and who’ve generally just done some pretty crappy things.
So Why Is It that We Sometimes Still Love These Characters?
Well, I have some theories.
Personally, I know that I can forgive a character for A LOT if they admit to what they did wrong, feel remorse, learn from their mistakes, and truly try to be a better person. And even if I can’t 100% forgive what they did, I can at least overlook it enough to still love the character and root for them.
In some cases, I can’t forgive or overlook what a character did, I still think they’re a crappy person, but I find them fascinating as a character, so I “like” them in that way.
Another possible reason is that sometimes people make a connection to a character, maybe they see parts of themselves in the character, maybe the character is there for them when times are tough and no one else is, and so they feel conflicted because they know the character has done bad things that they shouldn’t overlook, yet they do because they need that character.
Or maybe we sometimes understand why a character did something, we understand what led them to it, so we sympathize with them even though we know they’re wrong (e.g. sympathetic villains).
I think the important thing to remember is that we never know a person’s reasons for liking things. And it’s far easier to forgive fictional characters for things, or to simply overlook the parts of them we dislike, than it is to forgive real people. And if you’ve never experienced whatever bad thing it is the character has done (sexual assault, abuse, murder, manipulation, theft, etc.) in real life, then it’s probably even easier to forgive a character for that particular thing. At least, I know I personally usually have a harder time forgiving characters when their bad actions are something I’ve experienced myself. Plus, books are a way for readers to safely explore things in their minds without the consequences of real life. I believe it’s ok sometimes to like things in books that you wouldn’t be ok with in real life as long as you understand why they’re problematic.
Rape in The Vampire Chronicles
*Warning: This section contains discussion of rape and description of a scene that may be triggering, as well as minor spoilers for The Vampire Chronicles series.*
Since this is what spawned the idea for this post in the first place, I still wanted to talk about it.
There have been two instances of rape in what I’ve reread of The Vampire Chronicles so far (Books 1-4). The first was that of Maharet and Mekare by Khayman (it was revealed in the second book but happened long ago when they were all still human). In that scenario, he was ordered to do it by his king. If he had refused, he would’ve been killed, and someone else would’ve been ordered to do it, and/or Maharet and Mekare might’ve been killed. It would’ve happened anyway even if he’d refused, and it probably would’ve been a lot worse because Khayman actually did care about the twins in some way and didn’t want to hurt them. He didn’t want to do it, but he did it anyway, and I kind of understand his reasons. Also, he’s one of the oldest vampires there is, probably thousands of years old, and he still thinks about what he did and seems to feel honestly remorseful. Because he feels honestly and truly remorseful, and because I understand his reasons, I’m actually able to look beyond what he did and still find him likeable. And I have to admit, I was surprised to find that I could still sympathize with a character and find them likeable after that.
But it was Lestat’s rape of a woman in The Tale of the Body Thief that really got me thinking because I feel like it’s a general consensus that rape is one of the few things readers will never forgive a character for, and yet, Lestat does it and is still seemingly one of the most beloved literary characters there is. And the thing is, his scenario was nothing like Khayman’s. He wasn’t in a bad spot and trying to make the best decision possible, just overwhelmed and drunk because he was in a human body for the first time in centuries. Would he have done it if he hadn’t been so overwhelmed and mentally out of it? I don’t know. But he himself admitted that, in that moment, he had enjoyed her struggle, enjoyed “conquering her,” because it called to the predatory vampire part of him. And afterward, he felt shame, but, to me, it seemed less like empathy for how she must feel and more like a selfish kind of shame for the whole experience in general.
The whole thing seemed overwhelmingly dismal. It filled me with despair. The pleasure itself had been nothing!
A dull shame had come over me, a feeling of such awkwardness and discomfort in the slightest gesture I made or smallest word I spoke that I wanted simply to sink into the earth.
How fragile she looked—how sadly unbeautiful and repulsive.
I tried to see her as if I were really Lestat. But I couldn’t do it. She appeared a common thing, utterly worthless, not even interesting. I was vaguely horrified.
As it was, I felt filthy for having been with her, and filthy for being cruel to her. I understood her fear of disease! I, too, felt contaminated!
These quotes seem especially harsh out of context—you have to remember that Lestat is a centuries old vampire, he’s not used to human bodies, the smells and things that normally wouldn’t bother him as a vampire because he felt distanced from them made him repulsed and nauseous as a human, etc. The whole experience of being human again did not go as he expected it would, and most of it was miserable for him. Food and drink, for example, were equally as repulsive to him at first. His POV is completely different from any I’ve ever read because he is so very not-human, and that’s one of the things I personally love most about these books. And later in the book, he proved that, if nothing else, he learned from his mistake and used a condom with the next woman and made sure not to force her.
Regardless of all that though, I do NOT forgive Lestat. Unlike Khayman, he didn’t even seem remorseful. What happened was just a tiny blip on Lestat’s radar; he brought the woman a jeweled rosary as recompense later, but he moved on from the whole thing immediately in terms of emotion/guilt. I feel uneasy about what he did and don’t know how to feel about him as a character. Then again, Lestat has never been my favorite character in the series, despite it being mostly about him, and I still haven’t quite forgiven him for some of the other things he’s done either (I’ve talked about those other things in my reviews).
But it made me wonder if, in addition to all the reasons above, there are some other possible reasons for why he in particular seems to be able to get way with anything, like…
Maybe many of the people who love him haven’t read this book and so they simply don’t know about that scene. Or maybe they’ve read the book but have forgotten. (We all know how easy it is to forget what happens in books.)
Maybe, because he’s a vampire and therefore has different morals and an entirely different perception of the world, people hold him to a different standard than they hold normal human characters.
Or maybe Anne Rice is just a wizard who can break all the rules of writing and have readers love her books and characters regardless.
Wrapping Up My Thoughts
Again, I’m not trying to shame anyone for the characters or books that they like or dislike. I just wanted to share my thoughts on a character’s actions and point out that maybe there is no one thing that is always entirely unforgivable in books, that it always depends on the circumstance and the reader, and to muse about how there are lots of reasons a reader might still like a certain character even if they’ve done awful things.