Writing Sympathetic Characters

The protagonist in your story means a lot to you. You, as author, created a person whose needs, obstacles and fortitude infuse you with writing energy. But the most difficult part of telling a great story is to get your reader to understand and experience the same world, problem and character that you’ve imagined.
Writing Tip for Today: The gap between what the reader perceives and what you the writer intended is where most story troubles begin. The goal should be to create a compelling character, one whom we know in some detail. What are some ways to remedy a less-than sympathetic character?

  • Raise the Stakes. We hear this a lot, but if your character’s goal can’t pass the “so what” factor, your story’s stakes may need to be elevated. Ways to do this include: Time squeeze (Time is running out) so the goal must be accomplished in a certain small length of time; Connect with Universal Need, where you imbue your character with both inner and outer conflicts that most everyone can relate to, such as abandonment, unrequited love or a sense of belonging; or Mortal Danger, in which a character with high human worth faces a do-or-die situation.
  • Get Your Character Interacting with other Characters. Many times, a good character falls off the track into sentimentality, self-pity or navel-gazing when the character has a lot of soliloquies or time on stage alone. Monitor the amount of inner thought you write. It’s important to know the character, but too much of internal scenes makes readers crave action. Let the reader discover your character by showing her with others rather than by telling us with internal thoughts.
  • Create an Emotional Gut-punch. Creating a character with high human worth involves giving that character traits such as honesty, forgiveness and generosity. Go a step further and let your character deal with something that is sure to get readers: sick children, animals or other vulnerable characters. Your reader will root for a protagonist who is sympathetic, not self-pitying; up against tall odds and involved with others more than himself and able to extend her strengths to help others.

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.

5 comments on “Writing Sympathetic Characters

  1. I was told by a Genesis judge that my character wasn’t sympathetic. I kind of didn’t want her to be. She is an immature spoiled, although nice girl. I guess I should just deepen her a bit. Is it ok to do that later on in the MS? Or does she have to be very likable from the get go?

  2. Jan,
    The character and her predicament is what hooks the reader, so yes, it’s best to create sympathy (although not necessarily likability) from the get-go. If she is immature, spoiled or any other unlikable trait, then you must balance this with strengths that will force the reader into accepting those weaknesses. Strengths such as forgiveness, loyalty, generosity or an unwavering moral code help to balance out vulnerability. I’ll write more on this in tomorrow’s post. Keep working on it! ~Linda

  3. I love the ‘get your character interacting with other characters’ point. In my writing, I find I get my character bogged down in navel gazing when I’m stuck. I just ride it out then in revision I throw someone else into the scene and cut out the drivel.

    Great post.

  4. While I think sympathy is important to have for the main character, I don’t like the Mother Teresa main characters either. I like them to have a raw edge, something dark and secret which gives them a well rounded personality. I’ve read too many bad books where the main character is just too lovable and turns me off from liking him completely. Thanks for the tips, Linda

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