Five Ways to Create Sympathetic Characters
by Jason Black
We all want our readers to be sympathetic towards our protagonists and their supporting players. That is, we want readers to have a generally positive opinion of them. This, in turn, requires that readers believe positive things about our characters.
Sadly, we cannot simply assert nice things about our characters and expect readers to actually believe them. Readers’ beliefs about our characters stem almost entirely from the behaviors we show our characters doing, not what personality traits we tell the readers our characters have.
It isn’t enough to write “William was a prince among men.” You have to show it. With that in mind, here are five broadly applicable strategies for deciding what behaviors you can show that will in turn create the beliefs that engender sympathy in your readers.
People like to laugh, and readers like funny characters. Good-natured humor puts people readily at ease. So, show your characters cracking jokes or making witty comments. Show them having a humorous outlook on life, finding humor in unusual places, or even resorting to humor as a coping mechanism when situations get particularly grim—sometimes you have to laugh to keep from falling into a complete panic. Show your characters laughing at themselves, rather than taking themselves too seriously.
These are all reactions that, in real people, tend to relax us toward one another. Take care with physical humor, though. It doesn’t work nearly as well on the page as it does on the screen. On paper, physical humor can pratfall right into unfunny lampshade-on-the-head antics almost before you know it.
Try admiration to create sympathy for an aloof or intentionally not humorous character. Show them being masterful at some non-trivial skill. We all tend to admire people who are very, very good at what they do. They may be awful at everything else, but we can still admire their skills and root for them on that basis. Take neurotic detective Adrian Monk, whose social graces are absolutely appalling but whose powers of observation are second to none.
This works in a great many stories, because it is often true that there is a skill-related reason why that character is your protagonist: you gave the character special skills for some reason relating to the plot. Build admiration by showing those skills in action. Sure, MacGyver was a great guy, but it was his improvising skills that made him the protagonist.
The Golden Rule
It’s easy for readers to like a character who is kind to others. Ask thriller-writer Bob Dugoni how much mileage he got out of letting his protagonist David Sloan take in a stray cat. This is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t belabor it. Rather, let’s look at the danger of misusing the Golden Rule.
Human beings (and especially your readers) are keenly sensitive to reading the motivations behind people’s actions. When we see a person doing something nice for someone else, we usually know right away whether the action comes from the heart or via some ulterior motive. For example, when we see politicians kissing babies in a crowd or filling sandbags on a flooding riverbank, we can be pretty sure they are motivated at least in part by the presence of TV cameras in the vicinity. We all know politicians are drawn to photo-ops like bankers to money.
The Golden Rule fails when you show us scenes of overt kindness that have no apparent connection to the rest of the plot. Readers spot the photo-op scene immediately. Don’t just randomly send your protagonist to the children’s ward at the hospital with balloons and ice cream for the sick kiddies. Such an act, without some plausible connection to the greater context of the scene it’s in or the plot at large, will fail to be convincing.
"Glad it’s not me!"
You can also trigger readers’ sympathy by being cruel to your characters. Visit upon them misfortunes they don’t deserve. Literature has been doing this at least since the Book of Job; everybody feels bad for poor old Job because he never did anything to deserve the misfortunes with which he was tested. This one has an extra benefit that such misfortunes give you a second opportunity to create sympathy by showing how your characters rise to the occasion.
Make the task tougher
You can always build sympathy by making your character’s major story goal harder to achieve. Give them some kind of handicap in their pursuit. It could be a literal, physical handicap: a marathon racer who tears a ligament. It could be an emotional handicap, like fear of needles for someone who has to get some immunizations before traveling overseas on a business trip. It could be a resource handicap, such as trying to get through college while being dirt poor. It could be a skill handicap, like not speaking the language when stranded in a foreign country. Every reader knows the feeling of being stymied by unexpected difficulties. We hate that feeling, so we’ll naturally root for characters to overcome them.
For the most part, readers want to sympathize with your characters. We want to like the protagonists. But our sympathy doesn’t come for free. You have to work for it. Fortunately, creating sympathetic characters isn’t as hard as a lot of things in novel-craft. There are lots of ways to create it, even beyond these five, and readers’ predispositions tend to work in your favor as long as we see some decent effort at a sympathetic portrayal.
One last bit of advice: these tips work equally well for your book’s villains. You can get a lot out of pitting a likable hero against a likable villain.