Is character sympathy important?

Obviously, with a new book out on the subject, I’ve been thinking about character sympathy a lot lately. Most of the time, of course, character sympathy is subconscious for a writer and a reader—until it doesn’t happen.

Unfortunately, in a book I read recently, it didn’t happen. I never got onboard with the main character, and I frankly didn’t enjoy the book.

confuseSo, without pointing any fingers, I want to analyze what went wrong with this read for me. Details have been changed to protect the innocent.

First, the book happened to fall in the middle of a series, which doesn’t help. Perhaps if I were familiar with the characters already, I could have sympathized with the protagonist a little faster. As writers, we must be mindful of character sympathy whether the book is the character’s first adventure or his fifteenth.

Secondly, the character did have some of the basic principles of reader identification in place.

Giving our character problems is one of the first ways we learn to engender sympathy for our character with our readers. This character started off with an engaging scene showing struggles. She’s facing real adversity here—baaad people have it out for her. So that wasn’t the problem with this character.

The character also had some great strengths, another key to character sympathy. Her physical strengths and cleverness were quickly on display as she bested the bad guys despite being outnumbered and outgunned. She’s clever and witty, and even had me laughing. When she wasn’t being kind of snotty (which worked for her character, but was still annoying), she was fun to watch. So that wasn’t the problem with this character.

Did I mention her tragic backstory? Fortunately, she doesn’t bank too hard on her rough childhood and dead friends and family members as a ploy for character sympathy. So that wasn’t the problem either.

If all these things worked, how on earth did the character fall short? I found two things that I think really undermined character sympathy for me: a lack of sacrifice and unclear motivations.

Sacrifice, being able to put someone else’s needs above your own for just a minute—even something as small having a noble goal—is an vital part of creating identification with our readers. And while this character had a lot of responsibility, she ultimately seemed to care most about herself. She occasionally thought about others—but mostly only to be vaguely sorry she’s causing them so much trouble before she plunged deeper into that trouble.

ConfusedWorse, flinging herself headlong into danger, as she insisted on doing over and over again, didn’t really seem to make sense. A little too much information was being withheld, especially as to why the character thought this course of action was not only right but necessary. Our characters can do courageous things, even if it’s out of character for them, but only if their motivations are clear.

Ultimately, these problems continued throughout the book, and I felt like I was being jerked around by the plot—with the character’s complicity, leaving me in the dark as to why we were doing these dangerous things—rather than living through the character. The longer I think about the book, the more upset I get about it!

Character sympathy isn’t a given. We have to work for it. Don’t neglect character sympathy and leave your readers feeling cheated!

What do you think? Have you ever just not gotten onboard with a character? Why?

Want more tips on creating character sympathy? Read Character Sympathy!

Photo credits: stick figures—Tall Chris; confusing notes—CollegeDegrees360; both via Flickr/CC

One thought on “Is character sympathy important?”

  1. This is actually why I don’t read Mary Higgins Clark anymore. I really liked her earlier books, but after a while I found I didn’t really care what happened to the main characters.

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