A common concept in fiction is crafting sympathetic or likeable characters – those whom the reader can relate to. It’s far more important for the protagonist than the antagonist, though can make for a very interesting tale when the reader can appreciate both sides of the argument.
Unfortunately, it often happens that a character – intended by the author to be sympathetic – does not come across as well to the reader. This may be through personal experience, cultural difference, or just a poorly written character. It’s a probable outcome of someone writing directly from life; they know the person, so feel for them already, but have not provided enough to engage the reader.
This can even happen to as good an author as Jane Austen.
We’re nearing the end of Sense and Sensibility. I’ve been amusing Rose Red along the way with random predictions of what’s going to happen, why so-and-so has done that, and which characters will be fighting a duel in a later chapter (all of which I got completely wrong, of course). Willoughby has been proven a cad, and we’ve just had the opportunity to hear his side of the story.
If you believe Elinor’s reaction to his tale, he’s a poor unfortunate soul, who has now wound up married to a woman he doesn’t even like, while hopelessly in love with Marianne. All his problems are apparently a result becoming independently wealthy too early in life.
The poor thing. Regardless of the reasons that led him astray, there’s still the fact that he’s wasted an awful lot of money; continued to do so after realising he’s living beyond his means; abandoned one young lady, after getting her pregnant no less (still considered dastardly behaviour now, let alone in that era); led along another young lady to gratify his own ego (before actually falling for her – oh noes, poor him!); then married yet another young lady purely for her money (and goodness knows what on earth she sees in him – she doesn’t seem to be getting anything out of the arrangement).
I appreciate him recognising and owning up to his flaws and misconduct, but still consider him the closest thing to a villain of the piece. Maybe I’m becoming curmudgeonly in my old age, but – while I can forgive the ignorance behind his early profligacy – I find it harder to sympathise with someone suffering the consequences of choices they knowingly made.
But maybe the point is just that we should consider him pitiful rather than malicious. Hanlon’s Razor and all that. Though personally, I prefer Blore’s.