Creating sympathetic characters – techniques in action

This entry is part 7 of 11 in the series Creating sympathetic characters

Can I tell you a story?

Once upon a time, there was a young man who was a habitual thief. Even though his family was perfectly capable of providing for him, and even though he was perfectly capable of working to support himself, he stole everything he owned and stole from anyone he could. He even subjugated innocent animals to make them steal for him.

In the same kingdom, there was a beautiful princess. Rich, powerful, handsome, kind men traveled from all over the world at the mere hope of winning her hand. Her doting father gave her everything she could ever want, and all he asked was that she marry, so that he could rest assured that she would be taken care of when he was gone. (Well, okay, he also would have liked to play with his grandkids before he went, too.) But the princess spurned and humiliated every suitor that came her way and simply refused to marry.

I know exactly what you’re thinking—you can’t wait for these two to get together for their happily ever after, huh? (Well, you have to admit, this does sound like it could be a prequel to The Great Gatsby, and then they could retreat into their money or their power or whatever it was that kept them together. . . . Anyway.)

But I’ll bet that you know and love a story with highly similar characters. This princess and this *ahem* street rat got a few new attributes in this retelling to make them a little less sympathetic. But in the hands of masterful character builders, by the time you know all the characters’ names, you’re rooting for them to find one another and fall in love.

How do we make these wretched people likeable? Here’s how it was done in the story I drew this from:

  • Start off with a framing story to set up how important the hero is, how legendary he is, and hint that great things will happen to this “diamond in the rough.”
  • He steals out of necessity—he’s an orphan, and he has to steal to eat.
  • He is persecuted—the city’s guards catch him stealing quite regularly and chase him through the streets.
  • He is smart and charming, and evades the guards through trickery.
  • After working hard to get away with a single loaf of bread (and sharing with his animal sidekick), when he sees two hungry orphans he gives them his whole meal.
  • A rich, haughty guy tries to tell our hero off completely without justification, and the crowd laughs. But our hero will have none of that and throws haughty guy’s words back in his face.
  • But rich, haughty guy gets the last word—he says to our hero, “You are a worthless street rat. You were born a street rat, you’ll die a street rat, and only your fleas will mourn you.” Then the palace doors slam shut, making sure our hero can’t retort and reinforcing just how destitute he is—and in his heart of hearts, we can see he worried that rich, haughty guy is right. (Very like Scarlett.)

And that’s the first seven or eight minutes (and I didn’t even mention how he saved the orphans’ lives). The heroine, of course, wants to marry for love, and all her suitors are only interested in power and money. Her father could easily be cast as a bad guy—the evil tyrant forcing her to marry against her will—but in this treatment, he keeps those nice sentiments that we gave him before.

Okay, if you haven’t guessed it by now, I’ll just tell you: our hero is Aladdin from the Disney animated film. And yeah, it’s a kids’ film, so the characterization can be a little . . . well, strong. (How do you convince a five-year-old that the guy stealing on screen is actually the good guy?) But at the same time, it’s done fairly (or at least relatively) believably.

What do you think? What movies or books do you see good characterization of otherwise yucky characters?

Photo credit: money grabber—Steve Woods

Series NavigationTechniques for sympathetic charactersMaking readers love (or at least understand) unlovable characters

5 thoughts on “Creating sympathetic characters – techniques in action”

  1. Good points all, especially the one where Aladdin isn’t allowed to respond to the jerk’s insults. It was a very effective way to make the viewer go, “Aw, poor guy!”

    I have to say, you can’t overestimate the power of making the hero(ine) charming. Personally, I can forgive a character practically anything if s/he is kind and seems good-hearted, or makes me laugh. Though it’s less appealing in the abstract, physical attractiveness of the character is a strong likability factor, too. I feel like women in movies often have this going on: when the actress is gorgeous, suddenly “borderline crazy” becomes “free-spirited and sexy.” But male characters can certainly be guilty as well!

    As I said, I like characters who are good-hearted or funny, and I love characters who are both. Howl’s Moving Castle does this admirably. *Spoilers, but you asked for ’em :)* Howl is set up as a lazy, cowardly, irresponsible wizard who courts women just until they fall for him and then breaks their hearts. As it turns out, he is kind of lazy, irresponsible, and stubborn, but he’s brave when it counts, clever, funny, and kind-hearted – and the breaking of women’s hearts is part of a curse laid on him by a witch. Oh, yes, and he’s pretty, too. I don’t hold it against him. 😉

  2. Anica—Howl is a great example! My best friend actually recommended Howl’s Moving Castle to me last year because she said he’s exactly my kind of hero, and she was right. As a writer, I loved that Diana Wynne Jones gave Howl real flaws—and explained only some of them away.

    Oh, and he’s vain. Really, really vain.

  3. Indeed he is. I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, but I definitely appreciated the genuine Howl-ness of the line, “What’s the point in living if you can’t be beautiful?”

  4. Jordan, thanks for doing this great series on sympathetic characters. I’m currently creating a character who falls in the potentially-unlovable category, so I particularly appreciate your tips!

  5. Stephanie—you’re more than welcome! I learned a lot from my research, so I’m happy to share. Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s done this—and glad to be among such company!

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