There’s a popular “rule” out there that in writing, you should never have your main character be unsympathetic, otherwise your readers cannot identify with or sympathize with their plight. While in most circumstances, I suspect this is a good idea, after all, trying to cast Hitler as your protagonist is probably going to be a pretty hard sell, but as with all rules, they are made to be broken and I know that in my case, I’ve done it very effectively with my character Joe Orokamono. While he isn’t downright evil, he comes pretty darn close, yet people still seem to enjoy his exploits.
But unlike some other characters that are thought unsympathetic, like Tony Soprano or Lionel Shriver’s mother of a serial killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin, even though these characters are evil, at least their motivations can be understood by the audience. I’m not sure that’s really true of Joe though because, unlike a lot of other “unsympathetic” characters I’ve read, he’s not really someone who has motivations. He is a sociopath, although he shares some characteristics of psychopathy. He cares about two other people in the entire universe, other than that, he couldn’t care less who lives or dies. Sure, he isn’t a homicidal maniac that goes around and tortures and kills people for fun, but not because he sees it as wrong, but often because it would be a waste of effort and inconvenient for his ultimate goals, whatever those might happen to be. He isn’t about to, as the legend of John Wesley Hardin says, “kill a man for snoring too loud” unless that snoring gets in the way of his plans and it is easier to off the offender rather than pursue another avenue. Joe is nothing if not calculating in that regard, but if slitting someone’s throat who might upset his plans is easier and more efficient than another, less violent option, he’ll do it in a heartbeat and not feel a moment’s remorse. He is cold and calculating and highly intelligent.
In that, I think, most people who have read stories about Joe or played in games with Joe as a character have commented that he is totally inscrutable. Without being able to get into his head, there’s no way to predict what he might do at any given time. It’s clear he understands the possible consequences of his actions, but that his actions are only moderated by how inconvenient those consequences might be. He has no actual moral compass. He’s never on your “side”. Everything he does is predicated on his personal goals at the moment and how closely whatever you are doing aligns with what he hopes to accomplish. The second they stop doing so, he’s gone, or if you start actively interfering with his own agenda, your head can quickly arrive on the chopping block.
So why do people like him so much? Because he’s so competent at what he does. When it comes to combat, there’s nobody you’d rather have on your side. When it comes to tactics, he’s the king. But you have to keep in mind that his goals are not your goals, he is not your friend, he has no attachment to you, except where you are useful to him and all of these things are up for re-evaluation at a moment’s notice. And I think that utter unpredictability is one of the reasons people like having him around or like hearing tales of his exploits. I think a lot of people enjoy imagining having the kind of carefree life that Joe lives, unhindered by the pointless limitations of the law or social morays. He does what he wants, he goes where he pleases and anyone who gets in his way will find themselves in an unpleasant situation indeed. I think that plenty of people find that way of thinking, perhaps unconsciously, intriguing.
Therefore, even though the rule says not to have unsympathetic characters, there are always exceptions and I think I’ve gone as far down that road as I can with Joe. Any farther and you’ve got a maniac and I find it hard to think anyone would want to read the continuing adventures of a maniac. But what do I know, right?