What Makes a Sympathetic Hero?
by Jason Black
We all want readers to feel positively towards our protagonists. Even if we’re writing an anti-hero, we still want readers to be rooting for that character. No matter what kind of protagonist you’ve got, that protagonist needs the reader’s sympathies in order for the book to work. There are two parts to this equation: the sympathy, and the hero. I’ll tackle heroism first.
Heroes are characterized by action. The hero actually does things. He or she doesn’t sit around watching things happen, or waiting for situations to resolve themselves. You may have a protagonist who is passive like that—although I wouldn’t recommend it—but readers won’t view that person as a hero.
The hero’s distinguishing trait is a personality that turns toward action when faced with problems. That’s the hero’s default response: to decide what to do, and then do it. Other characters may be cowards who run away. Or they may live in denial, ignoring the problem in hopes it will go away. But not a hero. A hero faces the problem, in all its possibly terrifying ugliness, and goes to work.
And please, don’t let the phrase word “turns toward action” confuse you. Certainly, this applies to action novels, but it’s broader than that. By “action,” I mean the choices a character makes and follows through on. It’s not limited to the cliché heroism of running into a burning building to save a child, or barreling into a firefight with guns drawn.
In the right circumstances, simple things like picking up the phone to call your mother can be every bit as dramatic and heroic as any death-defying act. Just imagine how hard, and thus heroic, it would be for a teenager to call her mother for help after having run away from home to escape an abusive father.
Actions alone do not guarantee that readers will give their sympathies. You can have a character who is fully decisive, never at a loss for what to do, whom readers still don’t root for. This is because sympathy requires emotion, not action. To engender sympathy in your readers, your hero needs to display believable emotional responses to the difficult, terrifying problems you throw at him.
This works for any protagonist, including an action hero. An iconic example is from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones runs from the boulder. It’s a classic, and it works, because Indy shows obvious fear in the situation. He doesn’t just see the boulder, calmly say “I say, a boulder! I shall step aside.” No, he runs away. Hard, fast, and terrified.
>Showing the obvious and believable emotion creates sympathy because viewers know how they would feel in that situation. Most of them would be similarly terrified. I know I would. It works the same in books. Readers give their sympathy when they see a character exhibit similar emotions as they themselves would feel in a given situation.
Balanced and Variety
A sympathetic hero is thus a hero who has ordinary, believable feelings about difficult situations, but who isn’t paralyzed by those feelings. A hero is character who acts anyway, despite—or sometimes because of—those feelings. The sympathetic hero holds action and emotion in balance within himself.
But you need variety, too. A character who only exhibits a single type of emotional response will come across as wooden or the dreaded “one-dimensional.” A few people might connect with the character, but most won’t, for the simple reason that readers aren’t all the same. Sympathy depends on readers seeing emotional responses they can empathize with, but not all readers will feel the same way about every situation.
Phobias illustrate this pretty well. Some people are afraid of heights. Others, of spiders. Or snakes. Or confined spaces. Or the number 13. Some people are afraid of confrontation. Or of people being upset with them. Or public speaking. Emotional challenges come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s nothing on that list that all readers will be afraid of.
Imagine your hero is afraid of heights, so you set a pivotal moment of action on top of a tall high-rise building. Stepping out onto that rooftop in order to take action will be an emotionally challenging moment for the character. But in order to act, he or she needs to bypass the fear and do it anyway.
>Readers who happen to be afraid of heights will resonate with that scene like crazy. Those readers will totally sympathize with the character’s fear, and when they see the character overcome it, they’ll totally view that character as a hero. But not me. I actually enjoy heights. Intellectually, I can appreciate the character’s difficulty, but it simply won’t create the same sense of sympathy in me as it would in an acrophobic reader.
I’m not saying to make your character into a neurotic wreck so as to resonate with the fears of as many readers as possible—although to be fair, that strategy worked very well for the TV character Adrian Monk. I’m just saying you should strive to confront your character with a variety of emotional challenges, both large and small, in order to evoke a believable, multi-dimensional palette of responses from him. Your character will feel more real, more fully developed that way, and will inevitably be more sympathetic for it.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com.