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I'm writing my first novel. One of the main characters was born without a soul.

This is her description, which also reflects her personality:

She had long black hair, crimson red lips, and a skin so pale it made me wonder whether she had blood at all. But what struck me the most were her eyes. Even though there was nothing unusual in them, they made her face look expressionless, lifeless. It felt odd—like staring at an empty canvas.

Now, she is a little complicated. She's less expressive than a normal person and display less emotions. However (I know this will sound a bit contradictory), she is able to cry, love, and feel pain, though she usually shows it in unconventional ways (e.g. running away to visit a dead tree).

I'm fearing that the reader won't be able to relate or care about the character because she seems to lack human emotions, or because she expresses it in strange ways.

Will this happens? If so, what should I do so the reader can care/relate to the character?

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7 Answers 7

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First, a word of warning, the first thing most people will think after reading that paragraph describing your character is that she is a vampire.

Aside from the vampiric similarities, I think your best bet to create an enjoyable character without human emotions is to look at how other similar characters have been portrayed previously and take what you like.

The few that I can think of off the top of my head are Spock and Data from Star Trek, Sheldon from the Big Bang theory and to a certain extant Dr. Manhattan, but I'm sure there are better examples out there.

Based off my laughable sample size and the assumption that if a reader finds a character interesting, then they care about the character, there's only one trend I can think of, the emotionless character's struggle to understand the human condition. They bring an interesting perspective to it. I would never run off to see a dead tree when I'm angry, but if you draw a parallel between this emotionally strange behavior and what humans usually do, I won't start putting the book down and I won't feel alienated.

Note that feeling alienated from a character isn't a bad thing as long as they move the plot forward, although it could be argued that they become more of a force of nature and less of a character in that case.

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+1 for the vampire relation, I believe that the emotions/feelings are not expressed through appearance/looks and they shouldn't be. –  xpy Jan 28 at 21:07

That depends on your audience.

I wrote about a character with depression, suffering of terrible self-esteem, self-hate, very subdued emotions, complete disregard for own well-being resulting in suicidal bravery, a situation that would make others freak out taken in a firm stride, the most of his emotion shown when being murdered by the villain, after thwarting their plans, instead of screaming in pain he laughs.

Some readers accused me of making a robot. Literal quote: "The character doesn't even care about himself. Why should I?" or He was very similar in characterization to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando. Just throw yourself heroically at danger with all the emotion of a turnip.

Simply, the extroverted reader was unable to identify with my character. He didn't get his state of mind, despite hints of what was really going on in the protagonist's head.

On the other hand, I got a slew of praise from readers who are introverted, who can identify with depressive characters, who didn't need much to simply get in character. They understand that personality well, and can read the hidden hints perfectly.

So, concluding:Yes, many of your readers will find your character hard to identify with. That doesn't mean you should change a thing. You limit your audience, but the part of audience that will be able to identify with your character will love you for writing that. The rest will go meh,. but you can't satisfy everyone.

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There is no problem in a character who is emotionless. Readers can accept it...

Condition:

You will have to make sure that you provide the explanation regarding why the person is emotionless. If that person has suffered so much in past, that now he/she won't be ready to feel that pain again. And if you succeed in writing such a story, then readers may accept a person without emotions. (And sometimes, even sympathize towards him/her.)

BUT

If you are clear that it is soulless and not just emotionless, then I am afraid, not all readers will accept it. And more or less, it will depend on the description you write out.

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I am confused. Does without a soul mean without emotions? Or is the reverse true: no emotions means no soul? Emotional repression is more common than I care to admit, and at least according to genesis animals don't have souls and I know from experience that they have emotions. Therefore souls and emotions may or may not be synonymous depending on your definition of the word "soul." It seems to me that you are describing emotional repression/autism. Forest Gump is a prime example. Their fundamental need is for friendship and acceptance. Often times they can't accept themselves, which only compounds the problem. It is only through emphasizing that the character is behaving strangely with the motive of reaching out and grasping after a somewhat imaginary friendship to satisfy her relational hunger. Characters of this nature are typically introverts and often melancholics who tend to fixate on a certain friendship to the exclusion of all others.

If I was incorrect and you wish to emphasize the deficit of a soul and not necessarily emotions then this paragraph may help... else wise quit reading here. Maybe describe her with positives instead of negatives, which means starting with something lesser and adding instead of something greater and subtracting. Unless of course you wish to vilify her. We use insults to reduce people to objects (he is a dick!), and we exaggerate their positive qualities to flatter them (he has a big heart...). It seems that you wish to portray her in a positive light. Therefore I suggest starting the description with something less than human aka an animal and adding the human physical features and intangible attributes like intelligence. Emotions seem to come naturally enough to animals, which display primal responses not entirely unlike young children. I think the refinement of societal structures beyond a basic hierarchy or pecking order may also be indicative of human attributes. Comparing apes and humans would seem the simplest, but using any specific animal would complicate the narrative like a fractal.

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user2005 Yes, she literally doesn't have a soul. So I'm portraying her as less expressive than a normal person. –  Alexandro Chen Dec 29 '13 at 23:57
    
@AlexandroChen It seems that you wish to retain an element of mystery surrounding the lack of a soul, and I wish to define it. At some point the definition must be revealed or at least hinted at by some series of events/choices. Perhaps Frankenstein might inspire some aspects of your character. –  user2005 Dec 30 '13 at 5:51
    
“she literally doesn’t have a soul”—I can’t tell what this means, because people with different religious or philosophical outlooks have completely different ideas of what the “soul” does. –  Seth Gordon Dec 30 '13 at 20:22
    
@Seth Gordon Yes, it's a complex idea. That's why I decided to make it a novel not a short story. –  Alexandro Chen Jan 1 at 2:58
    
@AlexandroChen Whatever you do, please keep it cohesive and self-consistent, which usually means defining what exactly a soul is... That definition along with how it is revealed will determine how people will respond. –  user2005 Jan 1 at 19:18

Sometimes, a reader doesn't need to relate to a character through their traits. A reader wants to know her story. And if like she has a love story, people could relate to that story. Still, some people were called numb for not feeling their friends' attraction to them. I guess that seems like a soulless person, and it can somehow relate people to your character.

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Readers empathize with a character who wants things—even when they don’t approve of the things that the character wants. (Think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Satan in Paradise Lost.) Even a person who does not express or feel emotion in conventional ways can still want things.

So as long as you can show that your character has desires and makes sacrifices in her attempts to fulfill them, you should be good.

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If there is REASON behind the characters disposition/way of doing things(Not just for the sake of it... Think along the same lines as a antagonist that is evil for the sake of being evil and you can see how interesting THAT is.) then there can be a relation found there, but if the character is [insert emotional dispositions and motivations here] for no explained or implied reason then you run the risk of your character being seen as a cardboard cutout that ultimately the readers will not attach themselves to(Thus denying you from truly expounding upon any attachment with ensuing struggles the character will face.)

Another thing I would look at is what is the purpose of the protagonist or this character specifically in the story? Are they the focus or is their adventure/journey the focus? You can get away with having a mysterious character with little background explained if they are not the entire focus of the story, but ultimately their adventure and struggle therein is.

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