Under my new book review format, I talk about how much I enjoy characters. That got me thinking about character sympathy, why it’s important and how to manipulate the reader’s sympathy for a character.
One reference for how to adjust sympathy is Writing Excuses. They’re more successful than I am, and they’re also better at this than I am. The linked podcast addresses the how. They reference another podcast that explains why you don’t have to have sympathetic characters. That’s true. There are reasons to have unsympathetic characters, but I’m not a fan of them. They exist in The Journals of Bob Drifter, but that doesn’t mean I was overly happy about their existence, only aware of their necessity.
What is a sympathetic character. There are a few differing opinions, but I’m going to selfishly hover in my realm of opinions. While some feel sympathetic characters are those readers feel sad for, I don’t necessarily leave it at that. When I talk about sympathetic characters, I’m speaking specifically on characters readers have a strong emotional response to. A character my readers hate (if that’s what I wanted them to feel) is every bit as important as a character my readers love. When I get feedback from beta readers, my worst fear is I’ll ask, “what did you think about Character X?” and the readers will respond with, “Who?” That’s a much bigger problem to me.
One of my betas for Journals hates Richard. When she told me why, I smiled, and said, “Sorry, but that’s exactly what I wanted you to feel.” The degree to which readers hate Richard is one thing, but if they hate him for the same reason my beta hated him, I did my job right. Characters can’t be completely rage worthy any more than they can be completely sympathetic. The masters (who in my opinion are George R.R. Martin and Peter V. Brett) can make you hate a character and then a book later, make you at least understand them. This particular ability allows you to have an extra arch with your characters.
A great example for how to do this? Believe it or not, the WWE. I haven’t watched wrestling in years, but think about it. Shawn Michaels went from hero to villain to hero to goof to hero and all the way around again. Readers look for growth in character, and that’s another term that might be misleading. Sometimes failure tests a character’s metal, and it’s okay for that character to regress. Why?
Now we come to the main purpose of this particular blog. We’re all human. Just on the drive to my brother’s house we talked about what it is to be human. I don’t think people are good or bad. I think they’re people. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes they do horrible things. I know I have. So the most realistic characters react to their environment. I have a few characters who don’t change. I like those characters. I like those who no matter the test, they alway pass. I like the other characters too. I think House, M.D. was a great example here. What kept me watching that show was the thought that, “Maybe this episode, he’ll do the decent thing.” Nope. Never did. It’s the same trick Charlie Brown kept falling for. He’ll never kick the ball and House will never be a compassionate person. (You can argue the end of that series with me in the comments if you want.)
Those characters are unique, but they can get boring quickly. I’ve failed in my life, so I look for characters who have flaws, but are generally decent folk. One of the more common compliments I get for Journals is Bob. He’s a good, white-hat, guy. He has his slumps, but he’s consistently kind and compassionate, and that makes him sympathetic when he’s faced with tragedy. Others don’t like him because he’s too nice. I think the world is just about done with antiheroes, then again, maybe not. I think it’s an archetype like any other. Use tools for a reason.
You don’t need a raging alcoholic day-care sitter any more than you need an incredibly pious prostitute. That sort of extreme can seem forced and/or contrived. Strive instead for people who feel real. All my favorite books have at least one character I genuinely feel some connection too. It’s the part of me I see in those characters that makes me want to see what happens to them. I think this is something to strive for in writing.
That makes me want to close with a few (in no particular order) characters I found very sympathetic. They area also some of my favorite characters in fiction. They are:
Perrin Aybara from Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
Vin from Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.
John Cleaver from the John Wayne Cleaver series by Dan Wells.
The Warded Man/Arlen from The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett.
All of these characters have great emotional range. Sometimes, they do things that make me proud, other times, I’m angry with them for how they handle a situation. I could have gone on, but I just wanted to give you all a few characters I felt have the qualities I look for when I’m reading. You can feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
In summary: A sympathetic character is someone the reader feels something for. They should be realistic by sometimes failing tests of character. They can be “bad” or “good” as a whole, but no one is all of any one thing. (except for a few carefully chosen characters, which I feel need to be offset by other members in the cast.)
I hope this gives you some insight into what I shoot for when I write. If you think you’ve found something I missed, or you just have a good resource to share, let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading,