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,
8 thoughts on “Sympathetic Characters”
I love Perrin! I felt a real strong connection to him. Vin too. She’s wonderful. Have you read the way of kings yet? A character in there I felt a strong connection to was Kaladin. He made me mad sometimes and I wanted to slap him, but I loved him.
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I pretty much read ANYTHING Sanderson writes. He’s brilliant. Yeah… I’m a Kaladin fan too.
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Good point, you’ve gotta make them care about the characters.
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I love this definition of a sympathetic character: one we have a strong emotional response to. Hero, villain, or something in between–it’s the ability of that character to hook us, to make us care what happens to them, to invest in them even if we think they’re not long for their fictional world. (Yes. I have invested in a number of George R. R. Martin’s characters even guessing that their days were numbered. Sigh.)
I’ll admit it, though. I like the heroes or the ones who are somewhere between hero and villain the best. But I have a little room in my heart for fictional out-and-out villains too. 😉
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I’m actually writing a blog for future purposes regarding the line between true “good guy” and the gritty hero. I don’t mind an antihero. And I like a flawed hero now and then, but my all-time favorite books have true-blue good guys. They’re not “perfect,” but they’re genuine. Thanks for stopping by.
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Your study into character is really motivating me right now, Matt. Another amazing post, and you are covering some solid ground here. (I think you may have more architect in you than you realize.)
One thing that really bothered me when I read reviews of JOBD was how people lumped Bob into a boxed category then complained about him being a milquetoast character. I felt there was much more to his character than that. For me, Bob was a believable character that I could relate to and feel, as your post is hitting on, sympathy for. And by sympathy, I’m talking about your definition: having a strong emotional response to. His character arc, in my opinion, would have been shattered if you wrote him a different way.
I also remember seeing a comment or two about people not liking Grimm, that basically are identical to what your Beta Reader described, and I thought…that’s exactly how you SHOULD have felt about the character. Some people…
(Did I mention how much I’m dreading people trashing Drake for being a typical antihero…) Hahahah! Whatever 🙂 If they don’t like it they can write their OWN book.
Anyways, thanks for sharing this great post Matt. I haven’t featured you yet for my Feature Fridays, so you are due for this upcoming Friday. I’m going to point people toward all of these excellent posts you are generating. I know I’m learning something.
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That really does mean a lot coming from you. The “milquetoast” didn’t bother me so much. I wouldn’t use that word to describe a man who willingly faced his own death just to stop a bad guy from destroying the world, but he is a timid mundane person. That was by design. When you have a role in life and death, the ONLY possible way to rebel is to try to be a normal guy. At the time of writing Bob, I was reading a lot of larger than life, I-want-to-change-the-world type characters. So I wanted a guy who’s real ambition was to be average, mundane. It worked for some. It didn’t for others.
Drake…Drake isn’t like anyone anymore than humans are like other humans. Is he an anti-hero? Well, yeah. But it’s an archetype. I don’t think anyone is going to find one we haven’t touched on. So if you group his overall, traits into a category, that’s what would come back as an archetype. But archetypes exist for a reason. When you say things like, “Just another antihero,” you may as well say, “just another post-apocalyptic.” But your book and Walking Dead are special because of the details.
Everybody’s the same when you don’t care enough to learn about them. What makes them unique aren’t their profiles or occupations. It’s the minutia of humanity that makes each member of society special. That’s why people keep buying books. I once read about four YA Post Apocalyptic books in a row. I loved the first one. Thought the second was okay, and by the time I read the last one, I was angry because “they’re all the same.” Well yeah, they were. I’d challenge anyone who doesn’t like a book from the same genera to look back in their library. You may just have genre burnout. (Copyright M.L.S. Weech..any use or reposting of that term will make Matt feel relevant and intelligent as he’s pretty sure he just made that up.)
Try reading a different sort of book. If you HATE the high fantasy book you’ve just read…ask why. If it didn’t feel unique, is that all you’ve read in a while? I read another trilogy, then listened to the audiobooks of said fourth YA Dystopia series. It didn’t COMPLETELY change my opinion, but I resented the plots less. Now…are they formulaic? Well of course they are. You and I are both writing posts about plotting (in fact, mine’s due to drop in a little more than a week). Once you realize there are only so many types of plots, you learn the characters and details are the only way to make said plots feel original. Thanks for the inspirational comment. Drake is awesome. I love your book and can’t wait for it to hit the stands.
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