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.