While sympathetic characters must have strength, they need more than just moral or physical perfection to get us, the reader, on board. For readers to truly identify with them, all characters need to struggle. (I doubt I need to clarify this, but just in case: struggling with how incredibly awesome s/he is doesn’t count.)
These struggles can (and should) be tied to the plot—the character should work against the antagonist, whether a person or an impersonal force. The antagonist, especially at the beginning, should actually win sometimes. Why? Well, for one thing, we’re cultured to side with the underdog, the Cinderella story, the strong person who has been wronged. As editor/author Alicia Rasley points out, quite frankly, “We sympathize with struggle.”
So what kind of struggles should we give them? Like I mentioned, they should be facing some sort of antagonist—and possibly losing. In her article “Sympathy without Saintliness,” Alicia uses the example of the famous heroine Scarlett O’Hara:
Whether we like Scarlett O’Hara or not (and we probably don’t early in the book), we sympathize with her when her impassioned declaration to Ashley (and his wussy rejection of her) turns out to be overheard by, of all people, the arrogant Rhett Butler. The anguish… the embarrassment! We know just how she feels, and somehow we feel even more because our sympathy is unwilling, because we don’t WANT to identify with this snotty little flirt. And we don’t identify with her… that is, until something bad happens to her that we can actually imagine happening to us.
The key is– we have to know what it’s like, or be able to imagine what it’s like, to be in this situation.
But there’s more. The character has to squirm. The character has to be in difficulty. The character has to care.
However, the most sympathetic characters aren’t saints struggling solely against (obviously evil) external antagonists—they also have internal conflict. Some of the greatest, most compelling characters are those that struggle against some part of them that doesn’t want to do what we all know they should—for reasons we know and understand (it’s hard, it risks life and limb, etc.).
But, as Alicia says, “it’s the STRUGGLE that makes the difference.”
What kind of struggles do you give your characters? How do your favorite literary characters struggle? What do you struggle with in creating sympathetic characters? 😉
Photo by Kat Jackson