Sympathetic Characters

So, we’ve established that misfortune and conflict are the main factors in driving a story forward. Put a character in a horrible situation and our inner sadist’s interest is piqued–resulting in the turning of pages. And that’s all good and well, but how do we make the reader actually care?

Having sympathy for the characters is an extremely important–and often, I find, underrated–cog in the myriad gears and pulleys that run a successful story. In fact, it may even be one of the central cogs, the core upon which the entire mechanism revolves. Having a sympathetic character gives the reader something to latch onto, something the plot can then carry throughout the entire story. For this reason, every character in the story should be sympathetic for one reason or another–even the villain.

As for the how, here are four ways to make a character more sympathetic:

1) Proactivity drives interest; reactivity cripples it.

I think the number one factor to engineering sympathy is showing the character being proactive, as early as you can. This is one of those things you want to make very clear from the first page of your book, as a “reactive” character is inherently uninteresting. A character that just reacts to events is like a piece on a chessboard, being constantly thrown about by hands larger than he, and which he cannot control. It is very difficult to sympathize with this character, the same way it is very difficult to sympathize with a leaf, being blown away in the wind. There’s just not enough to grab onto.

2) The smallest light will draw us in, if it is in a room full of darkness.

A villain that is the epitome of evil is not as interesting as one who struggles with the choices he/she makes. This touches on a related topic, that of character flaws, but we humans do have a tendency to strive for the ideal. We idealize people, roles, and situations. We try to emulate them, to pull a little of that ideal into our own lives. An antagonist that is entirely evil–or a protagonist that is entirely good–makes it difficult for us to find something to relate to, let alone to idealize. We need similarities; the more a reader has in common with a character, the easier it is for them to aspire to be that character.

3) Expertise is key.

Somewhat connected to the above, the character has to be an expert at something. Now, that something could be plucking tulips while wearing rigid leather gloves, but they have to really excel at it. It’s not so much what the character is good at, it’s that there being good at it lets us look up to them. It also gives them their own niche in the story, aiding in their ability to be proactive, and, therefore, further ramping up their sympathy level. (I’d like to note that even a character who is literally good at nothing is an expert. They’re just an expert at being useless!)

4) Depth trumps breadth.

Yet another way of making a character sympathetic is to give them depth. This can include their actions, thoughts, etc., but the important thing is that there is a uniqueness to the way they view the world. They make us see things in ways we haven’t before, or their take on an issue reminds us of ourselves–either way, sympathy is increased. That’s all I’ll cover in this topic, but the next post will expand on adding depth to characters and their flaws, and how it results in a much more interesting and well-rounded character, overall.

Other sympathy drivers:

  • The Underdog Syndrome: If the character is having problems/is at the bottom of the ‘pecking group,’ we sympathize with them.
  • Quirks help the character be different, and attract our sympathy. I’m not sure why this is, but I’d assume it originates from a similar place as our attraction to expertise.
  • If a character is nice, and/or people like them, we tend to end up liking them too. This is one of the main reasons for the sidekick trope. The sidekick admires and likes the character, and so we do too.
  • Sympathy is easier when a character is consistent in his actions. Consistency allows us to get to know who a character is, and–combined with the above methods–drives us to care for them.


So that’s what I have on getting a character to be more sympathetic, but I wanted to cover one last question before we close this topic: What if I don’t want people to like the character? Wouldn’t I be sabotaging my villain’s ability to cause fear if I help the reader relate to him/her?

Surprisingly, the answer is quite the opposite. The more we relate to a character, the scarier it is when they take action. We understand them on an intimate level; we know what they did, why they did it, and we’re absolutely terrified of what they will do next. It affects us much more than if they were a generic antagonist whose actions are predictable and not demanding of much interest.

More on the topic, dislikability and sympathy are not mutually exclusive. You can make a character sarcastic, spiteful, and mean, and they’ll still be sympathetic and interesting even though we don’t like them. Sympathy drives character interest almost single handedly, and we writers would do well to recognize the inherent power it presents.

Next post: Adding Depth to Your Characters.



Fulfilling Promises

Entertainment is all about expectations. One of the major differences between an epic fantasy reader and a short fiction reader is in the expectations that each of them have of their chosen form of entertainment. An epic fantasy reader is looking for complete and total immersion, and will only be satisfied when that is achieved–a feat that is nearly impossible in a short story. A reader of shorter fiction, on the other hand, is looking for that quick emotional punch that a shorter form delivers much more effectively than any other, longer format. In the end, they will each be satisfied only if their expectations are fulfilled, and so may not enjoy each other’s favorites to the same degree that another might.

One of the ways we can control reader expectations–and, by extension, reader satisfaction–is through the promises we make to them, usually within the first third of the novel. In the words of the immortal Dan Wells, on Writing Excuses, “The promises that you make at the beginning of a story are the promises that you intend to pay off by the end of it.” You’re setting up the story’s emotional payoff even as early as the first page–you may just not know it!

For example, a story that begins with a murder is commonly viewed as foreshadowing for a mystery novel. But what if the writer focuses on the fact that it was an ice giant that committed the murder, and that it was done in an attempt to steal a magical scepter from the victim? Now we’re dealing with a fantasy. Or, on a somewhat smaller scale, what if the dead body becomes a backdrop to a certain beautiful young lady that is distracting our detective from the details of the crime? The same scene, this time promising a romance.

As you can see, promises to the reader can often be as simple as the author’s choice of focus–but they are no less binding. A story that promises a mystery then switches halfway to a romance will leave many readers dissatisfied. In fact, it will probably frustrate both the readers that picked it up as a mystery, and push away those that wanted a romance, fulfilling neither of their expectations. The same would happen if the writer focused heavily on a certain aspect of the plot/setting/character, gave it the status of a noteworthy detail, then took it nowhere. This is equivalent to setting the reader’s expectations to an unforgettable excursion to Disney World, then taking them to your local theme park. Or just to the park. Or staying home. Regardless, ‘yanking the rug out’ from under your readers midway (with no foreshadowing) will almost never have a happy ending.

Promises are actually the whole reason for the necessity of foreshadowing, aka preparing the reader’s expectations in such a way that the payoff can be truly satisfying. This is why deus ex machina endings (when something completely unforeseen saves the characters from a seemingly impossible situation) are so unfulfilling. The reader has no expectations of the coming event, and so feels almost cheated. They feel there was no way they could have figured it out on their own; it was too unexpected. And so they put down the book.

Simply put, you should never break promises! This is one of the few absolutes of writing, proven to result in reader dissatisfaction more often than not. If you want to get that same effect on the reader–and be successful doing it–fulfill the promise in a completely unexpected, yet still inevitable, way. This will keep your reader on their toes, knowing they can be surprised, while still allowing them to know that you won’t cheat them out of their well-deserved endings.

Next week we’ll talk about the grit of plotting, namely the structuring of the plot itself, in such a way that it’s end fulfills any promises you have made to the reader.