Readers Must Sympathize with Characters

A real character.

Recent feedback from a writer concerning a novel that I’m drafting said, “One character is more interesting than the other.” Since I’m writing a rotating Point of View, both are protagonists. The comment told me that one character was not sympathetic enough.

Writing Tip for Today: How can we make our characters more
sympathetic?

Likable, Compelling, Sympathetic

Writers often hear that their Main Character should be likable. Or compelling. Or sympathetic. What do all these terms have in common? For me, it means that readers are willing to commit to spending an entire story with my character. Most readers balk at an unlikable lead character, although people inevitably cite examples such as Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs. Even if the character isn’t likable, he/she must be compelling—the intrigue or the character’s uniqueness forces readers to follow.

Yet even if the character is likable enough and the story
compelling, readers need to sympathize with the character. This gives readers a
“horse in the race,” a way that they can personalize the character and the
story. I’d argue that this need for a sympathetic character is most important.
When you sympathize, you are walking a mile in the character’s moccasins. This
sympathy in turn maximizes readers’ ability to root for and care about the
character. Readers understand because in one way  or another they can relate to the character’s
goals and obstacles.

Emotions at the Core

In an excellent post by Nate Bransford, he shows that increasing sympathy for your characters can be done in a few different ways. My favorites on his list have to do with character’s inner life: showing the character caring about something, making them vulnerable, justifying their motivations and showing their wounds. By connecting these emotional areas to your character as he/she moves through the story, you prove to your readers that their time isn’t being wasted.

One way to increase these “sympathetic” areas in your character is by doing some outside the story writing. Let your character write to you about what he/she wants, why it’s important, how what happened before (backstory) shapes the story and how readers can relate to, identify with or become the character.

Do some “journaling” to uncover the hidden reasons for your character’s motivations, reveal that character’s wounds and vulnerabilities and help you give your character something or someone to care about—whether it’s a dog, a kid sister or a beloved cricket, as Bransford says.

Depth of Character

As you look for ways to make your lead character more
sympathetic, you are shaping that character’s depth and three-dimensionality.
The more your character feels or reads like the reader’s own emotions and
struggles, the more compelling the character will likely become.

This added sympathy to more compelling often turns to more likable, if not at least unforgettable. As you layer in your character’s unique emotional landscape, you are creating a more unique character—one that by way of this particular-ness can become universal. A universal character will likely appeal to the most readers, as they recognize themselves and their own emotions in your character.

Even if you write formula stories, a character who evokes emotions in readers always has a better chance of being memorable. For all of us, injecting our characters with more reasons for readers to identify can only help our stories keep readers reading.

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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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