Why Character Sympathy

heart COVER 300I began researching character sympathy years ago when I struggled with it myself. A shocking number of writers and resources suggested “fixes” and sources of character sympathy that are little more than gimmicks. The effective advice I found was piecemeal at best: a chapter here, a section of a book there, an Internet article. There was NO comprehensive resource on the why and especially the how of creating character sympathy.

Five years ago, as I was first studying the topic, many people gave advice like “give the character a tragic backstory—abusive parents!” or “make the character painfully shy” or “make sure the character is likeable” or even “make the character resemble the reader.” But any or even a combination of all of those isn’t enough to create true reader sympathy.

As I studied the topic at the time, I came up with a theory (and made up the alliterative phrase I used to describe it): that character sympathy is based on both strength and struggles. Characters must have both to generate true sympathy instead of merely creating pity or worse, turning the reader off the character altogether.

After five years, there was still no writing craft books focused on this topic. When I decided to publish nonfiction on writing craft—a subject I blog about, teach, and love—I knew I needed to address this gap in technique teaching. As with Character Arcs, I had to pull together many concepts and lessons that were highly disparate, even tangential (and a couple even contradictory). Even a phrase, otherwise unrelated, could inspire insight on the subject.

As I assembled my previous writing on the subject, I realized that one more aspect I’ve blogged about before was also crucial to getting readers on your side: the noble goal. While James N. Frey’s books first taught me that lesson, through the years I’ve applied, analyzed and reanalyzed it. I drilled down into the inherent reason why a noble goal helps generate sympathy. At its heart, I think it’s because the noble goal embodies sacrifice, the third crucial tenet of my theory of character sympathy.

Like all theories, mine is built upon the efforts of previous thinkers. Einstein built upon Ricci-Curbastro’s work, who built upon Newton, who built upon Euclid. Without the efforts of those who’ve gone before, we’d have to start over in each generation for math or physics or literary analysis. I’m not Einstein, but I built upon what I’d read before, just like Frey built upon the works of Lajos Egri

To give the reader as many tools as possible, I even distilled one or two of the more helpful models of creating character sympathy I’d found. However, these models only comprised short articles or at most a chapter in a longer work studying a number of topics. Until I wrote this book, there was no full-length resource available that focused solely on the subject of character sympathy. Obviously was also the first place my personal thesis, that characters gain reader sympathy through a balance of strengths, struggles and sacrifice, was published.

Sharing my personal thesis on character sympathy and giving readers a resource that fully addressed the topic, focusing solely on the why and more importantly the how of effectively evoking character sympathy, is why I had to publish Character Sympathy.

What do you think? What do you want to learn about character sympathy?