Do I Care? Make Me! How To Create Sympathetic Characters

We can’t all be as cute as that guy on the right. Trust me, if it could be done, I’d have managed it–and right now I’d be swimming in free cookies for life. Thankfully I have disposable income for the procuring of cookies, so I don’t need to be irredeemably cute. Nor do your characters, but they DO need to be sympathetic. If the reader doesn’t care what happens to them, then why keep turning pages to find out?

This week I’m discussing why your characters need to be sympathetic, what that means and how to do it. As always, links to resources at the bottom!

What Do YOU Care About?

Patricia C. Wrede sums up up thie issue of sympathetic characters perfectly. She says this:

Hooks and cliffhangers, opening in media res, lots of fast-paced action, brilliant worldbuilding, intricate plots – all these things that are supposed to get readers interested in a book and keep them reading – won’t matter if the reader doesn’t care about the characters on some level.

And there it is. If you don’t care, we don’t either. Wrede says that the best way to write characters people will care about is to write characters you care about. Decide whether you’re interested about people who are shy or outgoing, blazing individuals or the ultimate everyman. Then ask about the journeys you like to see them make, and the types of trouble they can encounter that they’ll really care about.

I Like You, But Not Like That

Martina Boone from Adventures in Childrens’ Publishing tracks the progress of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games. Katniss starts out as a character it’s easy to love as she protects her younger sister. As the series continues, some people felt she became harder to like–but because we understood her, we were glued to her story.

Roni Loren reads for the characters, but she doesn’t have to like somebody to care what happens next. She gives us some great examples–Severus Snape and Coach Sue Sylvester from Glee among them–of characters we’re drawn to, even though we don’t like them. For her, the key is that somewhere along their journey we find ourselves sympathising with them, or for a moment, understanding them. If your character isn’t likeable, she explains, that’s okay–but we need to understand why they do what they do.

How To Do It

So how do you do it?

Martina Boone provides a list of ideas to consider, though she cautions against throwing them all at the one character, or romanticizing your character in an attempt to help her win friends. Common tips include:

Give your character something to love or fight for.
Let your character be willing to make sacrifices.
Give your character a special skill or ability.
Make your character an underdog.
Give your characters flaws readers can relate to and forgive.
Give her a motivation readers can see and understand.
Give her wit, spunk or a sense of humour.

To these tips, Roni Loren adds several more, including:

Don’t let your character whine too much.
Don’t try and play us–having your character save a homeless kitten won’t fool us!
Don’t take too long to start developing the sympathetic side of your character… we’ll have given up by then.

What’s your take on this? Have you ever read a bad book to find out what happened to a character you loved, or put down a hit because you didn’t care what became of protagonist? Or anybody else? What tips or tricks can you suggest?

Sympathetic Characters Three Ways

Source of all wisdom, Patricia C. Wrede explains that for us to care, you have to care.

The ever lovely Roni Loren says sympathetic doesn’t have to mean likeable.

The outrageously smart Martina Boone is asking the tough questions.

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31 Comments

  1. Carrie says:

    Great post and thanks for the links! Sue Sylvester and Severus Snape are two of my favourite characters. I love catching a glimpse of the human side of characters that seem horrible.

  2. mooderino says:

    While undoubtedly true it’s a bit like saying a story will be more popular if it has a happy ending, which leads to ridiculous ‘Hoolywood endings’. Th eproblem with the ‘Save the Cat’ approach is that it can become corny, especially if it’s obvious what you’re doing. Adding different facets is always good but it isn’t necessarily what attracts the reader. Did peopel like Sue from Glee before the scene you mention? Would they like her if that scene didn’t exist? So why does she work so well? Why does Hanibal Lecter or Robert Mitchum in the Night of the Hunter? Ignatius J. Reilly is an obnoxious, ridiculous buffoon, and a beloved character – but not by everyone.

    I would suggest interesting characters are just as engaging (maybe even more) as symapthetic ones, they’re just harder to write . Darth Vader in the original movies very popular, not very sympathetic. Vader in the prequels more sympathetic, less popular. His mother dies, he’s struggling with the dark side (or being a teenager, same thing), you see his reasons and motivations, but nobody cares. Why?

    Sympathy when it’s forced into a character or story feels manipulative. Some people are okay with that, they’ll take the ‘Hollywood ending’ no matter how cheesy or unlikely. Bu there are some people who enjoy a story that goes a little deeper, a little darker and then the bad guy wins.

  3. If I’m reading a book and realise that I don’t care what happens to the main character then I put the book straight down. For me it’s no longer worth the effort to carry on reading.

    You’ve given us some excellent tips here. I may even use Martina Boone’s at my next writing group session if nobody objects.

    Thanks a lot for that. Looking forward to seeing you in the A to Z next month. Hope it doesn’t wear us all out too much. By the way, I love the new website layout.

  4. Very tricky problem, I’ve made my latest heroine, eleven years old, a bit bad tempered – we’ll see..

  5. Good points, but I think it’s also to important that whether a character is sympathetic is subjective. You and I might think the protagonist is easy to relate to, even if not likeable, but Hank in the corner might not get it at all.

  6. Jessica says:

    Am bookmarking this post!!! I love the list of tips from Martina Boone on how to have a sympathetic character–so important! Thanks :)

  7. Beth says:

    I love this post, and I’ll be bookmarking it. There’s nothing more important to me than getting the character right. Thanks for another awesome post!
    And I love your new layout. Looks fabulous!

  8. Talli Roland says:

    Great tips – and fantastic links. Sue Sylvester is a great example!

  9. Excellent post! If we don’t care about the character then chances are we won’t keep reading. Love your tips, and what you’ve done with the place. Nice spring cleaning!

  10. Creating a sympathetic character is one obstacle I face when writing. I focus so much on the plot, completely forgetting about my character. A story should be character driven. I hesitate to write this way because I’m afraid I won’t be able to create a character, different from myself, that would be real and evoke sympathy. The tips you’ve provided are going to help me really flush out my characters. Thanks!

    And when it comes to characters we love to hate, I always feel that no matter how ugly or mean they might appear on the surface, unless they’re a true sociopath, they hold a sense of humanity within in their guarded psyche. This modicum of humanity will seep out, if for only a brief moment. Then, BAM!. Our hearts warm just a tinge, then the flash smile dissolves back into a scowl when they return to the regularly scheduled villainy.

  11. Wonderful information here. Thanks for the post. I always like to have as much information as possible. Love the links too.

  12. Roni Loren says:

    Thanks so much for linking to my post! :)

    I definitely have given up on books when I don’t care about the characters. I don’t care how kickass the plot is. If the characters don’t grab me, it doesn’t hold my interest.

  13. Arlee Bird says:

    I much prefer this new look of your blog page. Black on white is so much easier to read in my opinion and the page has a very clean and organized look.

    I agree that characters need to have something to make us care about them. Even the villains should have something that made them that way that we can’t help but care about.

    Lee
    Tossing It Out
    Twitter hashtag: #atozchallenge

  14. T.C. McKee says:

    I so tweeted this post. One of your best ever. I’m reading Mockingjay right now. I can see the relation. I’ve read a few books where I just didn’t care about the protag, or I wanted to slap her. Not a good thing. There has to be that mixture, that chemistry from the get go. Or at least by page fifty or I’m gone forever. Loved this post.

  15. Great post!! And I’ve enjoyed reading the comments as well… I am revising my first story, and hoping my character is more sympathetic in this version… in the last, even *I* was hoping for her untimely demise :)

  16. Oh, my gosh! Thank you! I’m so flattered — and so not worthy! But I’m delighted you liked my Katniss example. I struggle with character likeability, too, which is why I started paying attention to it. And I love Roni’s additions–and the advice from Patricia C. Wrede. Thanks so much for sharing that. Great post!

    Martina

  17. While I was developing my book, The Treasures of Carmelidrium, my critique partners kept saying they didn’t like my protagonist in the first chapter. This was a serious situation and I needed to brain storm a solution. So I exchanged emails with my editor because there were certain things a writer isn’t supposed to do.

    1. Introduce too many characters in Chapter One.
    2. Introduce characters in Chapter One that don’t have anything to do with the rest of the book.
    3. Start with back story so the reader can understand your character better, too boring.
    What you are supposed to do is in as few words as possible, establish your character in their everyday world and then bang, comes the action.

    With fantasy, this is especially difficult. So the answer for me after all my brain storming was to introduce one extra character in chapter one who lets the reader see my protagonist in a normal situation and therefore, gets to relate to and like my protagonist.
    I think I did that, lost a little hair in the process, okay, I always lose a little hair, it happens, just look at your brush.
    Cheers,
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, The Treasures of Carmelidrium.

  18. Kari Marie says:

    This was a really really cool post. Thank you. I’m bookmarking it and off to check out the links!

  19. PK Hrezo says:

    This is such a great reminder when we’re crafting our villains–which I’m doing right now. Awesome post!

  20. Anita Miller says:

    I’ve read a ton of bad romance just to find out what happens!

  21. Lynda Young says:

    Fantastic post! great tips too. It’s so important to have strong, relatable, believable characters.

    btw, I’m back from a blogging break and I love your new white blog! It’s great :)

  22. Caryn says:

    This is great advice! I’m just starting a new book and am trying to balance my character’s honesty with her likability. It’s not always easy! I’ll have to use a few of these tips.

  23. Julie Musil says:

    I LOVE the new look of your blog. I did the unthinkable…I wrote about an unlikeable character. Thanks to my critique partner’s advice, I added redeeming qualities in the beginning. By the end of the story, I fall in love with him all over again.

  24. All those ideas are great! I often love the unlikeable character only b/c I’ve read the backflap, have an idea what’s going to happen, and know I will end up liking them. Did you change your blog?

  25. This is an important subject for me, because my first novel was rejected again and again by editors because the MC “wasn’t sympathetic.” My agent loved her, but editors wanted somebody less dingy and more noble, so the agent finally dropped me. A year later Bridget Jones Diary came out and I found a publisher easily. So I guess what I’m saying is even the concept of “sympathetic” is relative and can be based on trends.

  26. Gail says:

    I found this article quite informative, and well worth retweeting.

  27. Great post – very helpful – thank you
    Love the new look
    xx

  28. Don’t know how I missed this one! It’s a great post. And not just cuz I love Martina. :D To me, characters are key. A great plot is wonderful, but you have to put the right person in the middle of it to make the magic.

  29. Very helpful. Caring about characters makes me want to read more. And as a writer I have to create characters people would want to care about.

  30. Mooderino and N.R. Williams wrote excellent comments on this topic.

    I personally use two methods to garner sympathy: (1) making bad things happen to a character (such as tragedies) and (2) making them experience setbacks (such as failure). Method #2 generally requires more work.

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