Tag Archives: character sympathy
I 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?
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Sigh. I have many things I want to blog about, but right now, most of my writing time is taken up with preparing for the LDStorymakers conference next week, where I’m teaching about Structural Self-editing on Friday and Gesture Crutches on Saturday (twice!). We may not be back to our regularly scheduled bloggy goodness until after that’s over. And I’ve recovered.
For now, I do have some awesomeness to tide you over!
Character Sympathy now has a foreword by RITA award–winning author, best-selling novelist, fiction writing teacher, editor extraordinaire Alicia Rasley! Her articles were among the first really good resources I found for learning more about character sympathy, so I’m thrilled to have her for the foreword!
Also for Character Sympathy: the print version of Character Sympathy is now available! Thanks to those Sneaky McSneakersons who’ve already found it and bought it! The print version does include the foreword. And it’s beautiful! Just check out the proof (side-by-side with Character Arcs):
— Jordan McCollum (@JordanMcCollum) April 4, 2014
Finally, I have a guest post at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University about finding and working with a cover designer. Your cover is your book’s first impression, so make sure it’s a good one! Learn how to find a good cover designer and work with them to create an awesome cover for your book.
I’m privileged to be part of Fiction U’s faculty in the Indie Author Department!
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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.
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.
Worse, 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!
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It’s my birthday—and my baby’s birthday! How awesome is that?! Almost as awesome as the present I got for you.
Are you struggling with an unlovable character? Do your beta readers hate your heroine? Are your critique partners confused about your character’s motivations? Don’t despair—a little more character sympathy could help you! Learn how to get your reader on your character’s side from the very beginning, to get your reader rooting for your character and riveted to the story.
IS YOUR CHARACTER WORTHY OF YOUR READER?
Often we think of sympathetic characters as those we love or envy or pity, but character sympathy runs deeper than simply liking or feeling sorry for a character. Sympathy in this sense is truly feeling what the character feels, worrying over the same things he worries about, and wanting him to succeed against all odds. If we can get our readers to fully sympathize and identify with our character, our readers will enjoy that journey with our character and then clamor for more.
CHARACTER SYMPATHY will help you:
- Learn what events, actions and characteristics create true sympathy for a character.
- Engineer your character’s motivations and goals to maximize their sympathy.
- Avoid clichéd methods for creating reader identification.
- Foster sympathy for heroes, antiheroes, villains and everyone in between.
- Observe and analyze master storytellers’ techniques to create character sympathy.
Character sympathy isn’t automatic or easy, but it’s necessary for readable fiction. Applying these principles can strengthen any story and any character.
Hook your readers with a character they can really root for.
Praise for Character Sympathy
“Jordan has a knack for developing great characters. In this book she shows how to strike the proper balance to make characters believable and multidimensional. Very helpful for all authors, from newbies to published.”
“Jordan McCollum’s Character Sympathy offers a clear explanation of why showing trumps telling and why your hero/ines need to work for the reader’s sympathy.”
“From Character Sympathy I learned how to make my characters tick from the beginning.”
More about the book
Find the table of contents and more here! Plus, keep an eye out for upcoming character sympathy profiles looking at the techniques storytellers use to get us on the same page as their characters from the very start.
Get it now!
Character Sympathy is available direct from JordanMcCollum.com (in PDF, Kindle/.mobi & ePub formats) and from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo! Paperback will be available as soon as my final proof arrives for approval.
Also in the Writing Craft Series
Character Arcs: Founding, forming and finishing your character’s internal journey is available direct from JordanMcCollum.com and Amazon and in paperback—and now at Barnes & Noble! It’s also processing at Kobo now, too.
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It’s a big week! We’re kicking off launch week with an excerpt from Character Sympathy: Creating characters your readers HAVE to root for!
When we use it correctly, humor can be a great tool for creating character sympathy.
A sense of humor helps to make a character more relatable. It can give the character an air of resilience, which is a strength worth rooting for. Whether the story events are positive or negative for the character, if he can take everything with a joke, he remains more grounded for the reader. Humor helps to temper the extremes of both strength and struggles, and make the character more human. And of course, when our character gets in the perfect one-liner or comeback, the readers (like us) get to indulge in a little wish-fulfillment for all the times words have failed them in a fight.
Several types of humor work particularly well with this, including wit and sarcasm, especially used in a self-deprecating way. Being able to poke fun at herself makes a character more endearing. Making fun of another character in a mean-spirited way, bullying, and cruelty, however, are very likely to backfire on the character-sympathy level.
This tool for creating character sympathy is optional. It’s not suited to all characters or all stories. But if your character is struggling to engage your readers, perhaps a joke or two couldn’t hurt.
What do you think? What other reasons do you use humor in your writing?
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Today, I’ve got two fun things to share. First, my indie author column is running today at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University (formerly The Other Side of the Story). Go learn more about finding your perfect editor and editing level!
Secondly, I’m revealing the cover of my next writing guide today! Character Sympathy is coming soon!
What does it mean to have a “sympathetic” character? Often we think of characters we love or envy or pity, but at its core, what our fiction really needs are characters the reader can root for and relate to.
When you have characters your readers can really care about, even if they don’t love the character, your readers will be fully engaged in your story and beg for more!
Learn what does and doesn’t create character sympathy and see how to use proven techniques for creating character sympathy to really hook your readers.
And here’s the cover!
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It’s been a long time since we talked about creating sympathetic characters, but one of the timeless techniques for character sympathy came back to me last night. We were watching one of our favorite shows, which happens to be a game show. The opening of the show always features short biographies of the four competitors, wherein they almost always predict their ultimate victory and gloat about how much better they are than the competition (whom they’ve never met).
I was all set to really dislike one of last night’s competitors after the usual boasting in her introduction—and then they asked her what she’d do with the prize money ($50,000). She planned to put a downpayment on a home in Brooklyn.
Okay, so that’s not stunning or anything—owning a home has always been part of the American dream. But she didn’t just want a home for the sake of fulfilling the picket-fences plan that’s been programmed into us—she wanted to be able to buy a home in a good area of Brooklyn so her daughter could go to the best school in the city.
BAM! I was on her side in a flash. I was all ready to root against her—until she had a noble goal.
Note that this goal is still kind of self-centered, and not for the betterment of society or anything. But because it’s focused on another person—especially a child (what can I say? I’m a parent, too)—it still helps that person appear sympathetic.
And if it can work on real people, it should work on fictional people. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II, James N. Frey argues that a noble goal is key to developing reader sympathy with characters. We need to have a reason to root for the character and hope for his success. Even a despicable degenerate can win readers over if we can sympathize with his goal.
What do you think? What are some examples (from your books or books you’ve read) of characters you didn’t like but still rooted for?
Photo by Robb North
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So we’ve talked about the methods of conveying backstory—but we also need to hit on the purposes of backstory. Generally, I see two main uses for backstory: to explain why the character is the way he is (characterization) and does the things he does (motivation). Personally, I think using backstory for characterization is the weaker of the two reasons—but both come with caveats.
It seems like backstory in characterization is usually used to try to make us feel sympathy with the character. The errors can run either way. In “Sympathy without Saintliness,” editor and author Alicia Rasley lists several common faults in trying to create character sympathy—and backstory is two of them:
4) Giving the protagonist a lot of heroic backstory. Yeah, he was a big hero in the war. Yeah, she saved a lot of lives during that epidemic. But that was then. This is now. Backstory is just background– the character exists right now, and what he/she does now is what’s important. It might work if now he/she is burned out by all the heroics, self-doubting, feeling like an impostor… oops. Now we’re getting into the fun stuff…. hang on to that thought.
5) Giving the protagonist miserable backstory. This is often done in order to excuse some unsympathetic behavior or attitude [and is also a common technique to try to make villains sympathetic]. Yeah, he hates women, but it’s because his mother abandoned him! And his foster mother beat him! And his aunt framed him for murder! And his first girlfriend trapped him into marriage by getting pregnant! And…
Maybe we’re just hitting a nerve here with me, but frankly, I’m so tired of seeing that in fiction that instead of feeling that desired tug at the heart strings, I roll my eyes when I read about how he’s too short and her mother never, ever loved her. I know a lot of people who’ve been through bad times: abuse, living on the street, loss, grief. None of them automatically became fractured protagonists or villains. Geez, if these characters are going to act a certain way, let them take responsibility! Don’t just blame everyone else—that character made a choice somewhere along the way that made them into this person. (Possible exception: the character’s journey is about learning to take responsibility for his/her choices and actions.)
Alicia puts it better than I can: “While we want to sympathize with the characters, we don’t want them to be victims so battered by past events that they don’t actually live in the present. There’s also that ‘authenticity’ problem. If we lose the sense that this is a whole person, if we think the author just layered all these past traumas on, we won’t believe in the protagonist.”
We don’t want our stories or our characters to be trapped in the past. We need to remember to focus on the story. As Mystery Man on Film said:
What happens in the past, off screen, good or bad, does not affect sympathy. It’s what we see the character do in the present that determines how much we will or will not care about that character.
Backstory can definitely influence how our characters are and act—they had to come from somewhere!
But that’s not the only problem with backstory and characterization. If we use backstory as the primary way to build character sympathy, we’ll probably have to stop the present story to wedge in a long story about our character’s terrible childhood. We run the risk of boring our readers right out of caring about our characters. We need to focus on the scene—and story—at hand to find a way to get our readers caring.
What do you think? What’s the right way to use backstory for characterization?
Photo by Margarit Ralev