Give Your Protagonist a Sympathetic Problem

Art by Susan Faye used by permission

Anyone writing a novel has heard the adage that a good one is “interesting people in trouble.” We’re told to stuff conflict onto every page. What kind of trouble is your protagonist in?
Writing Tip for Today: James Scott Bell calls the novel’s Inciting Incident a “disturbance.” Whatever you call it, your protagonist must face some sort of trouble, for TROUBLE translates to READER SYMPATHY. Here are some ideas:

  • Danger,Will Rogers! If your protagonist faces a life or death situation, the reader will usually sympathize. But be careful, if you make it too easy for the protag to overcome the dangers, readers may feel it’s not worth their time. The key is to make the character fully human, someone with the same strengths and weaknesses most of us face.
  • Poor Underdog. A physical, social or financial hardship can muster reader sympathy. We love to root for an underdog. We don’t expect this protagonist to be perfect, but I think the reader wants this character to be fairly altruistic. If for example, your character loses everything in an economic downturn, let the character worry about stuff that matters. Too much on having to cut back on caviar and reader sympathies dry up fast. David v. Goliath stories almost always have us root for David.
  • Achilles’ Heel. If your character is vulnerable in some area, readers can identify. Someone with high morals might wrestle with chastity. A wife whose husband is highly allergic to dogs might not be able to help herself. Choosing a vulnerability will deepen your character and help readers develop and maintain crucial reader sympathy.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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