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Unintentionally Unsympathetic

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"There's a difference between having a sympathetic backstory and actually being sympathetic."

When a character's purpose is to get sympathy or motivation from the audience which fails because their story or personality is written badly. It can be made even worse if they have to learn a lesson. Without being at least somewhat invested in the characters, the audience might have passed the point of caring when the character finally comes around.

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Just like with Cursed with Awesome, it can be hard to dredge up sad feelings for a character whose life is in every respect more glamorous (or at very least, more interesting) than the audience members'. True unintentional unsympathy is generally reserved for unpopular traits such as being overweight or being a nerd, both of which tend to be grossly exaggerated on television (see Hollywood Pudgy and Hollywood Nerd) and usually have nothing to do with anyone who might have such problems.

Sometimes these are humorous things in a character's past dredged up to embarrass them. This is supposed to make the character more human without affecting their present "perfection."

This can also go for villains, and here it's an especially easy trap to fall into: sometimes one is meant to be more complex or morally gray, but their Freudian Excuse just doesn't cover the acts they go on to commit. Yeah, we're sorry your little sister died in that building the superhero battle knocked over, but that doesn't give you a free pass for trying to blow up the hero's entire planet. Note in this case that the "unintentionally" is an important part here: if the excuse the villain makes is flimsy on purpose, they are not unintentionally unsympathetic.

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Often a problem with The Scrappy and some varieties of Mary Sue. A Designated Hero is also another case. A badly done Jerkass Woobie can also be a target of this.

However it's important to note that there are varying degrees of this. For example in one scenario the audience may not sympathize with a character in a particular scene but they can still be overall sympathetic. Whereas in another situation it's impossible to sympathize with the character at any point.

Occasionally, Values Dissonance comes into play. A legitimate cause for Angst in the country that it was produced might seem like Wangst to fans abroad, and what might be acceptable behavior in one country might lose a character a great deal of respect from fans in another.

This is the opposite of Unintentionally Sympathetic, and can be the result for those who are opposing characters who are more sympathetic than the author intended.

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Compare and contrast Hate Sink, when a character is purposely made as unsympathetic as possible by the author. Also compare Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse and Disappointed by the Motive, when it's stated In-Universe that their "sympathetic" backstory doesn't justify their wrongdoing and their reasons are lacking respectively. When the audience hates a legit sympathetic character whom they find unlikeable for comparatively frivolous reasons, it's Ron the Death Eater.

See also Law of Disproportionate Response.


Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • I'm a Mac... and I'm a PC:
    • Aside from being a smear campaign against the PC, the Mac comes across more as a smug yuppie than anything next to the poor put-upon everyman playing the PC.
    • British versions of the ads starred Mitchell and Webb as PC and Mac respectively, in a way that was reminiscent of their Peep Show characters, Mark and Jeremy. In other words, PC is a basically likable and honest, if rather geeky, guy, while Mac is a selfish, irresponsible layabout.
    • The features they chose to highlight had this problem too. All the PC advantages the ads waved off as boring were things most people actually need, while the Mac advantages were all things that are useless to anyone who isn't a dedicated artist. More than anything, it makes the Mac character come off as someone who doesn't have a job and thinks that's something to be smug about.
  • Commercials for the Toyota Highlander featured a kid bragging about how his parents are cool and not embarrassing now that they bought the Highlander. But he comes off as a smug little bastard, and we're supposed to sympathize with the other kids whose parents don't drive Highlanders, which gives off the message: "Being a nice, loving parent just isn't good enough, oh no, if you don't drive the right car your kid has every right to hate you!". Even worse, once they buy the Highlander, he's seen not only pitying his friends whose parents didn't buy one, but, to make his parents "cooler", makes them throw out everything in the house he doesn't like, including their family portrait.
  • DirecTV's ads portray a man who married a... marionette and had a child with her. Yet he constantly brags about how his TVs have no wires now that he switched to Direct TV, often right in front of his wife, son, or father in law. While he attempts to deflect he was talking about the TVs, it all comes off as a man who's hating his own family for being different.
  • This Kia Forte commercial posits the average attention span is 8 seconds and their emergency brake system, lane assist, etc. can all help keep drivers safe. They demonstrate this with a woman who gets so caught up singing along to the radio that she nearly crashes because she wasn't paying attention to the road. While emergency brake systems do have their merits, it's not hard to think a lady who can't sing along to a song and also pay attention to where she's going probably shouldn't be behind the wheel.

    Comic Strips 
  • Anthony in For Better or for Worse. You're supposed to feel sympathy for him because his wife, Therese, doesn't want their daughter, and he also feels like he no longer "has a home". But the fact is that he had harassed Therese into getting a baby when she didn't want one in the first place. Anthony lost even more ground when it was revealed, that he promised Therese that he would stay home with the baby, but he didn't intend to keep his word, because he just expected "the magic of motherhood" to kick in, so Therese would want to quit her job (which was even implied to make more than his did) and become a stay-at-home mum. But she is supposed to be the bad spouse, because she wanted Anthony to actually keep his promise and because she's not the maternal type. Then throw in that after saving Elizabeth from sexual assault - on the very same night in fact! - while she's recovering from the shock, Anthony decides that this is the perfect time to confess that he's in love with her and is so terribly lonely... while he still is married to Therese at this point, and even if he had been single, he was pretty much taking advantage of a woman who had just nearly been raped by a stalker. No words can describe the level of disgust that this garnered from readers.
  • Calvin's parents in Calvin and Hobbes. Parents as People is in full effect here (perhaps a little too much so). Calvin is maybe meant to be a Bratty Half-Pint, who would be a handful for most people to raise as their kid. But still, his parents will hardly ever interact with him in a loving way, even if he's not up to something wrong, and the fact that they don't seem to even try to understand him really doesn't help their cases. They will snap at him even for small things like that he "bothers" them while they're reading a book. The mother has done things like throwing Calvin (who is just six years old) out two and a half hours before the school bus arrives, so she could get a morning free from spending any time with him. The father on his part has said things like he would rather have raised a dog, and had an apathetic reaction when Hobbes got lost in the woods. Not to mention that the father seemed to seriously consider throwing Calvin into the alligators pit at the zoo! There are some tender moments between the parents and their young son, but they are few and far between (like only twice a year or so). It became so bad that Bill Watterson himself had to address it in a commentary, where he expressed some regret that Calvin's parents mostly had been seen when they were in a bad mood (beause they would often only be present in a story arc to react with anger to their son's latest shenanigans). Though he also said that "they did better than [he] would've" with regards to the kid, so yeah...

    Tabletop Games 

    Theater 
  • This is one of the main criticisms of RENT. At best, the heroes—Mark and Roger in particular—are Brilliant, but Lazy and want the adoration that being a respected artist would bring, but have yet to actually produce anything to earn it. At worst, they're spoiled elitist brats who think working a regular job is beneath them and expect to stay in their apartment rent-free as they wait for inspiration to come to them.
  • The Phantom from Love Never Dies is supposed to be someone who still adores Christine and conspires to bring her back because he misses her. However, his threatening to take Christine's son (who he later learns is really his own) away if she refuses to sing for him quickly ruins that.
  • Angelica from Hamilton, to a certain point. While there's no doubt she's utterly devoted to Eliza, since she sacrifices her own happiness for her sister's so she can marry Hamilton, you have to raise an eyebrow at how Angelica realizes right away that Hamilton might eventually cheat on her—and as kind-hearted and loveable as Eliza is, what guarantees that Hamilton won't do the same to her? Of course, Angelica wants Eliza to be happy, but shouldn't her first instinct as a big sister to shield Eliza against a potential heartbreak and scandal and advise her against marrying Hamilton? How is the heartbreak of an adultery lesser than a heartbreak from a Love at First Sight? A possible Alternative Character Interpretation would be that Angelica started flirting with Hamilton in order to "avoid the unavoidable" (because any other interpretation, aside from Eliza being aware of the Not-Threesome, would make Angelica look like a Hypocrite), though you have to once again wonder if all the pain was really worth it in the first place...
    • Adding to that, in a case of Artistic Licence – History, what doesn't help is that the whole business described in "Satisfied" was invented for the show—by the time Eliza first met Hamilton, Angelica was already married—to John Barker Church, whom she had eloped with to marry, angering her father in the process, nonetheless. The musical making little mention beyond "The Schuyler Sisters" of Angelica's intelligence and influence and the extra time she's given being all centered around a Love Triangle has soured the deal for certain people, especially with Angelica being supposedly presented as a Mary Wollstonecraft-esque first-wave feminist.
  • Jamie from The Last Five Years. The basic conceit of the musical is that Jamie and Cathy both contributed to their marital issues, and in the end, they just weren't right for each other. Cathy and Jamie are both shown as being sympathetic — but a lot of the fandom finds it hard to feel too bad for Jamie. While his and Cathy's marriage clearly had problems from the start, some of which were her fault, and some of which were nobody's fault, a lot of the fandom lays the blame mostly on Jamie, since the final straw is him cheating (and he had a wandering eye for years before that). The fact that he informs Cathy he's divorcing her via a letter does not help his case, nor does the song "See I'm Smiling," which shows that Cathy is trying to make it work, whereas he's given up by that point. The film adaptation made it even worse, showing Jamie cheating on Cathy with several women (as opposed to just one, like in the stage show), which makes it difficult to argue he genuinely loves his mistress — and they also added a bit of dialogue where he responds to Cathy's (correct) suspicions that he's cheating by telling her she's crazy.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: After the events of Volume 3, Blake is scarred by being the cause of Yang's lost arm. However, for a good chunk of the fanbase, her running away from her friends and her mistreatment of Sun made Blake unlikable, coming across as an abusive coward, and those events didn't justify her actions.
  • GoAnimate "Grounded" videos: The parent characters who are punishing the trouble-making kids, particularly those of "baby show" characters such as Caillou and Dora the Explorer. The makers of these videos intend for the viewers to side against Caillou and Dora (who, truth to tell, aren't the wholesome lovable heroes that they are canonically, themselves) and with their parents. But in all honesty, the measures the parents take to teach Caillou and Dora their lessons often come off as overly cruel. Even so much as hitting a sibling can lead to getting grounded for an incredibly long time or even murdered (directly or indirectly) by their parents. Additionally, sometimes the parents even do stuff without Caillou and Dora just to be mean (sometimes even before the kid has even caused any trouble) and, in extreme cases, even tell them to their faces how much they and the world hates them. In the end, the parents frequently come off as incredibly abusive Jerkasses not worth rooting for over the Jerkass Woobies Caillou and Dora.
  • Turnabout Storm: Some felt this way about Trixie. She acts incredibly smug, arrogant, and condescending throughout the entire series, has no qualms about trying to get Rainbow Dash wrongly prosecuted simply for revenge on Twilight, and repeatedly prioritizes revenge over the truth. She's meant to get a Cry for the Devil in the form of black Psyche-locks, but these are never significantly explained or elaborated on. Phoenix at times says she's doing certain things for noble purposes, but virtually every one of these instances is actually explainable by Trixie just serving her own selfish ends. She even savors Rainbow Dash's guilty verdict, rubbing it in Twilight's face and declaring that she felt on top of the world afterwards. She never even apologizes or shows remorse for what she did, not even when Phoenix generously helps her out and saves her career. The only really noble thing she ever does, write a secret, reluctant thank-you note to Phoenix, came at no cost to herself whatsoever, and as far as she knew, would not be discovered by anypony.

    Web Comics 
  • AGENCY: D.W. Read. The reader is supposed to feel sorry for her because she was kidnapped by The Nine, but both because of what a horrible little bitch she is in her home series and her treatment of fellow kidnapping victim Marcus McCloud (she throws a book at his head at one point), she comes across more as an Asshole Victim than anything else, and it's hard to not feel angry that Sandy Cheeks and the Pink Panther have to save her.
  • In Doki Doki Literature Girls, there is Sayori. In the Friendship arc, Sayori reveals that she had known that her new friend Ako was infatuated with her, but she opted to be oblivious to it. While she does this as a way of preventing having to break Ako's heart since she was dating Monika, it instead comes off as Sayori being deceitful and playing with Ako's emotions.
  • Hazel from Girls with Slingshots: The author, Danielle Corsetto, has said that she deliberately writes her as a flawed character to make her more believable and relatable. However, many times this crosses into Hazel being downright unlikable. It came to the point were many readers cheered when Zach broke up with her, even though it was portrayed as a very sad thing in the webcomic.
  • A large chunk of the cast of Dominic Deegan come off as this, which is one of the main reasons for the series' rather large hatedom. Luna, Melna and Dominic himself are probably the biggest offenders, though Melna at least has a Freudian Excuse to explain her behaviour even if it doesn't justify it for many fans.
  • The Order of the Stick
    • Therkla. She's only in the comic briefly, but she's more or less every negative stereotype of modern teenage girls in human form: she compromises her mission because she has a crush on a boy, she's overly dramatic about her home life (treating the fact that her parents are sickeningly in love on the same level of harsh and disgusting as being a Child by Rape, though at least this is completely Played for Laughs), her primary complaint about the lack of reconciliation between her crush and her mentor (who are on opposite sides of a good-vs-evil conflict) is that it means she never gets her way, and she ends up committing a variation on suicide because a boy wouldn't dump his girlfriend for her. It's sad that she died young, but she spent most of her time acting like a brat with levels in Ninja. The Giant says that Therkla represents the neutral in the good vs. evil conflict, but her idea of compromise is basically asking the good guys to let the evil guys (including herself, since she's complicit in the actions of her evil mentor) get away with the murder of dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent people.
    • Celia. She was supposed to come off as the slightly naive "civilian" of the group, as well as a pacifist. However, she applies this pacifism in situations where it is very dangerous, such as against an opposing army that has no qualms about killing her and the remaining good guys hidden in the caves. The fact that she couldn't even figure this out made her go past naive and into straight up stupid.
  • Miyabi Otsuki from The Way To Your Heart. He's clearly supposed to be sympathetic due to how the death of his mother and the way his father withdrew from the family as a result deeply affected him. However, he frequently comes off as a massive Jerkass who overindulges in the wangst. He has friends with whom he's playing in a band that he's the lead singer of and a loving sister whose Number One concern has always been his well being. Plus, said band is very popular and is heading for mainstream stardom. However, he treats his friends like dirt, treats his fans with contempt, and is a total bully towards the school faculty and other students. He bullies the main character Yumi just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time and accuses her of trying to replace his late mother because Yumi coincidentally bears a slight resemblance to her, and then ends up falling for her, which he tries to deal with by leading another girl Yayoi (the daughter of Miyabi's manager and mentor) on and toying with her feelings (Yayoi may be nuts, but no girl deserves that), nearly getting Yumi killed by Yayoi when she gets jealous well as resulting in Yayoi's own death by childbirth, leaving her father utterly devastated. And aside from not only never receiving any real punishment for his actions, he's constantly Easily Forgiven by everyone because of his musical talent and Freudian Excuse. While the author Emi did take steps to mitigate this by giving Miyabi some Character Development, for some readers, it's way too little, way too late.
  • The janitor in one two-part strip from Nip and Tuck. He stops a transwoman from going into the women's restroom, pinches her testicles to "prove" that she's male, before bluntly telling her that he doesn't believe in her identifying as a woman and threatening to do worse to her if she tries to go in the women's restroom again. We're meant to think of him as giving a potential sex offender what "he" deserves, but to many commenters who don't share the author's views on transsexuality, the janitor comes off as a transphobic jerk who should have been arrested.

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