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.