Crafting Sympathetic Characters

Do you ever find yourself at your computer (or notebook) when writing and feel like screaming, “UGH, I HATE THIS CHARACTER!”

Oh, really, you do? Me too! Or you have someone beta read for you and they say, “I really don’t like this character.”

And then you cry and cry and cry, then cry some more because you spent so much time fleshing out who you thought was an amazing, really likable character. Then you cry yourself to sleep and dream of ways to kill off your entire cast of characters. Oh, not that last bit? That’s just me? Oh…

But don’t worry! Not all hope is lost. There’s a difference between likable and sympathetic. Your protagonist may be the biggest asshole on the planet, but if readers care about him, they’ll keep reading. The trick is they have to care enough to want to know what happens.

Example one:

As Marcus washed the dishes in the sink, the brush’s stiff bristles scraping the soapy suds against the plate, his green pasture-colored eyes gazed longingly out the kitchen window to the far pasture. He pondered the day’s events, of all the puppies he rescued and the little one he gave to his son, remembering how brightly his eyes lit up. He thought about his perfect life, his perfect family, and his perfectly chiseled jaw.

Did you care at all about Marcus? Booooring. Did you even finish reading it? I’m all for rescuing dogs, sure, but if this was an actual story I was reading, I wouldn’t give a damn about Marcus. Obviously I’m going to extremes with this example, but you get the picture, right? Take a look at this next example:

Example two:

His day at work had been grueling and never-ending, and all Marcus longed to do was pick up his son from his ex-wife’s house — that bitch, he added mentally — so they could completely veg out on the sofa with a weekend-long Star Wars marathon. Just as Marcus had signed off on his last report of the day, his manager marched down the row of desks with another stack of papers in his hand and dropped them on Marcus’ desk. Marcus stared, his jaw slack as he watched his manager turn and walk away without another word about the extra two hours of work he had just dumped on him.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Did you care about Marcus this time around, at least a little bit? Let’s go over some things that will help make your characters more sympathetic.

  • Faults
    Characters need faults. Where’s the fun in reading about someone who’s perfect in every way? Perfect characters with perfect lives have no conflict. Conflict is an integral part of novels. In our second example, Marcus’ life isn’t perfect: divorced, shared custody of his kid, and overworked at his job. Your character’s faults don’t have to be big, either. Is your protagonist ultra shy? Rude? Anxiety-ridden? Bossy?
  • Goals, Wants, Needs
    Goals are the driving force of your plot. In every scene, your character needs to have a goal, even if it’s something as simple as wanting to go home or spend time with family. What goal, need, or want is the driving force behind your character’s actions?
  • Active in the story
    Your protagonist shouldn’t be a passive bystander in your story. The plot shouldn’t just be happening around him, with your character only reacting to what’s happening. His goal, want, or need should be strong enough to force him to take action.
  • Redeeming quality
    While it’s necessary for your character to have at least some faults, he should have at least one redeeming quality your reader can identify with. Marcus, for example, cares about his son even though not everything around him is perfect.

Remember, sympathetic does not have to equal likable. Your character could be the biggest jerk ever, but the reader should care enough about him to feel compelled to finish reading his story.

In what ways do you try to make your characters sympathetic and relatable? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


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