Article of the Month
Sympathy without Saintliness
c. 2003 by Alicia Rasley
A problem even many advanced plotters face is how to make the protagonists sympathetic while still allowing plenty of room for growth and lots of flexibility in action. Advanced plotters realize that a perfect character has nowhere to go, no way to change, but they also learn that showing imperfection early can cause the reader to dislike the character.
You might have experienced that problem. In fact, one of the more annoying rejection reasons editors cite is "your protagonist isn't sympathetic enough." Sometimes they'll even add what they find unsympathetic... what they seldom do is give us a good idea of how to reverse the situation.
What makes a character sympathetic? Well, first, let's look at what makes a character UNsympathetic. Of course, we have to accept differences in taste-- I, for example, am one of those awful readers who pick out one little tiny aspect of a character and then despise the whole person because of it. All a hero has to do is -sneer- or -leer- or -smirk-, and I'm out of there. I've even been known to hate a character because of his/her name.
But you can't do much with a reader like me. :)
Let's assume that most editors aren't as mean and picky as I am, or if they are, would say, "If your hero would just stop leering and sneering, I'd like him more." When they speak of a vague sense of un-sympathy, they generally mean something more than a few unpleasant words.
So what would make YOU find a protagonist unsympathetic in those crucial early chapters? We can dispense quickly with "cruelty to children and animals" and "boils on the face" and "a shrieking laugh", because most of us aren't inflicting those on our protagonists.
And we have to acknowledge that things like a protagonist "speaking sharply to one's mother" and "being a curmudgeon" and "giggling" and "being less than good-looking" might turn off some readers, but don't disqualify a protagonist, because many wonderful protagonists overcome
those "problems" and in fact are quite sympathetic.
So... what would turn you off a protagonist? Or what would require some seriously skilled writing to get you rooting for a protagonist ?
Here are my "unsympathy sources":
Whining, unless it's done with a sense of humor, like a heroine calling her best friend and announcing, "Brace yourself. I'm going to whine about that boss of mine again!"
Self-pity, except maybe with a sense of humor. (I'm seeing a pattern here-- a sense of humor helps a lot.)
Snobbishness? I'm thinking of being nasty to those "below" you on a social or economic scale while kowtowing to those above. I wouldn't have nearly as much trouble with a protagonist who was equal-opportunity nasty.
That's not to say that a good writer couldn't take a whining, self-pitying snob (Bridget Jones, anyone?) and make me love her, but it would take more skill than I think I've got. Easier, perhaps, to avoid those things that make a character immediately unsympathetic and concentrate on creating someone the reader will identify with.
But we have to be careful whenever we start building characters. Readers can tell when they're being manipulated. I have seen writers try to MAKE a character sympathetic (done it myself, in fact!), as if you can apply "sympatheticness" with a trowel. Here are some methods I've noticed DON'T work:
1) Load the protagonist up with a whole lot of great qualities and virtues... make him/her perfect, or as close as anyone this side of divinity can be. He's not just handsome and kind to children, he funds AIDS research, climbs mountains, speaks nine languages, wins yacht races while remaining very humble, writes thank-you notes within two minutes of receiving a gift or even a phone call, mows his elderly neighbor's lawn, has perfect teeth, can vanquish bad guys with one hand tied behind his back.... I don't know about you, but I hate this guy just in summary. I might be a really low, envious sort of person, but I don't think I can sympathize with anyone perfect. I'll save my sympathy for someone who needs it. :)
Notice that this guy has nowhere to go, no way to grow. I don't need to feel any sympathetic concern that he might encounter problems, because, heck, he can handle anything, right? So perfection isn't sympathetic. In fact, it might well be more of a turn-off than whining.
2) Putting in an unrelated incident where pro is kind to someone or saves someone's life or something like that. While of course, if the heroine saves someone's life in the first scene, we're going to probably think well of her, but only if we don't feel it's manipulative. And if there's no real connection to the plot, if this life-saving event doesn't lead to some plot development, we'll know that was just stuck in to manipulate us. And, oddly enough, a kind or heroic action early in the book that just seems like one more in a series of wonderful acts (like "Oh, Jack! This is the 25th person you've saved from drowning this year!") will make it seem like this is nothing special, diminishing its impact.
3) Putting marvelling praise in the mouth of other characters. "Jane is so kind! Why, she mowed my lawn last summer!" "And she brought me cookies too!" "And she has taken in those four foster children when no one else would have them, and now they're honor students!" I guess this doesn't work because if someone is so beloved by all, so recognized by all, then why does she need my sympathy?
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. 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...
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.
I just read a book where the hero was SO good and the villains SO bad, and the hero was so badly treated by the evil villain (his wife :) that I couldn't quite believe it. (Plus the author had this tendency to exaggerate the minor little physical problems of being human to major flaws in villains-- the divorce lawyer had "a slightly greasy face" and grubby fingers. The hero was radiantly pure, of course. Never sweated even. <G>) I kept thinking if the hero was so great, why was he such a willing victim? I started sympathizing with his wife. I know– I'm a negative person. But at least she had some power, even if she used it for evil. He was just a martyr.
Enough of what doesn't work! What does?
Sympathy is created when a whole, real person (I know, hard to create, and harder to know how to create one!) faces difficulties and must struggle to overcome them-- and maybe when, even when he/she doesn't want to, the character ends up doing the right thing, the moral thing, the
Let me revise that: ...and when, ESPECIALLY when he/she doesn't want to, the character ends up doing the right thing, the moral thing, the heroic thing.
Notice the theme there-- difficulties. struggle. doesn't want to.
Oh, yeah, that old devil conflict.
We sympathize with characters in conflict.
But not always. We don't always sympathize with someone who is the victim of lots of bad things and bad people. We don't always sympathize with someone (like Hamlet) who is forever agonizing about what to do and why he's being singled out for these bad events. We don't always sympathize with a superman who faces conflicts and, one by one, handles them deftly.
I really think it's STRUGGLE that makes the difference.
A passive victim doesn't struggle-- just suffers.
A Hamlet is so busy agonizing in his mind he doesn't have time to struggle in real life.
A superman doesn't struggle because he's better than any conflict.
We sympathize with the character who experiences something we understand, or faces an obstacle we understand and with difficulty tries to overcome it.
Think about that. Sympathy isn't about how nice this person is. 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.
Or we don't care.
What if Scarlett, instead of turning beet-red and wishing she could sink into a hole in the floor, had seen how cute Rhett was, and decided craftily to take advantage of this opportunity and sidled up to him and said, "Oh, kind sir, won't you please soothe my broken heart?"
No sympathy, right? There was no difficulty. That experience that we thought would be so awful for us would turn out not to be so awful to her. Again, she doesn't need our sympathy. We might sort of admire her for her resilience, but we won't sympathize.
It's much more sympathetic when she feels humiliated and miserable and wants to die.
But wait! There's more! If all she did was feel miserable and slink away in humiliation, what would happen to our sympathy?
It would probably become pity... mixed with a bit of contempt. That's because she wouldn't be trying to overcome the obstacle. Defeat isn't sympathetic. It's pathetic.
Fortunately Scarlett is made of sterner stuff, and says furiously and famously, "You, sir, are no gentleman!" (A great exit line– unfortunately Rhett retorts, you know doubt remember, "And, you, miss, are no lady!" which makes her even more sympathetic, because she tried but failed to get the last word... and we know that deep down inside, she suspects Rhett is right.)
We admire that. She feels the humiliation, but doesn't let it defeat her.
That lets us sympathize with her without condescending to her. We sympathize-- we empathize. We can imagine ourselves in a similar situation, and we can hope we wouldn't let it defeat us either.
So maybe you should think about confronting your protagonist with some difficulty early. It doesn't have to be a nuclear bomb. It can be something fairly trivial-- as long as we can experience, along with the character, the difficulty of it. Just a minor event, and yet, we're with her. If we've seen her battling the odds and feeling awkward and incompetent, we're going to cut her some slack now. We won't judge her so harshly because, well, she's one of us.
But what if your plot doesn't allow your protagonist to be humiliated and scorned and made miserable? What if your protagonist has to perform some heroic act early? Is he doomed to appear sanctimonious and unsympathetic?
He probably will be unsympathetic, if he strides into the situation without a qualm, if he succeeds single-handedly and without breaking a sweat.
Remember that we sympathize with struggle, with difficulty. If he's a cop and he has to climb onto that bridge over that icy river to save that suicidal jumper, make him think about it a bit. Make him a little reluctant. Maybe he takes off his new leather jacket and hands it to his partner-- "I don't want to get it wet." Maybe he gets up on the railing and looks down and gets dizzy.
Maybe the jumper curses at him and he thinks, "What the heck am I doing risking my life for some guy who doesn't want my help?" Maybe he even shrugs and starts to climb down, thinking, so jump, you jerk, and then the jumper whispers something like "Tell my mom it's not her fault," and the protagonist cusses to himself because against his will, now he's thinking about that mom who of course is going to blame herself, and so he has to get back up on that railing and try again to save the guy who doesn't want to be saved but has a mother who doesn't deserve this.
See how much more sympathetic it is if he is heroic without wanting to be? If he's scared and annoyed and even a little grumpy about it? The reluctant hero is much more sympathetic than the hero who finds heroism a piece of cake.
So forget about perfection. Forget about loading this poor guy down with a miserable past. Just give the protagonist trouble now, and make it a struggle-- and the reader can't help but sympathize.
We sympathize more with characters who have to WORK to be good, and we see the effort involved. For example, let's take two scenarios:
1. Hero is in his tux, on his way with a friend to a big gala where he's going to sit at a table with a Big Venture Capitalist who could fund his pets2.com company. (Okay, maybe his wireless pizza delivery service.) He's got to make a good impression on BVC. But on the way, he passes a car disabled by the side of the road. A little old lady is standing there looking helpless. Immediately he pulls over, gets out, cheerily informs her that he'll take care of it, pops the hood, finds the problem. She protests that he'll get oil on his suit, and he says no problem! He strips off the coat, covers his shirt with the handy bath towel he keeps in the car for just such occasions, and in a few minutes has fixed the problem and has only a little spot of oil on his hands, which he wipes off with the handy towel.
The old lady thanks him profusely, and he laughingly dismisses her attempt to give him some money, and won't even tell her his name so that she can send him a thank-you note. When she tries to give him her card so that he can come to her house for a gift, he refuses-- "I didn't help you because I wanted a gift. I helped you because it was the right thing to do." Then he stays to make sure that the car starts and she's able to get going, and even follows her to the exit ramp in case something goes wrong.
Alas, he gets to the gala a trifle late, but his friend is right there, telling the BVC, "Tom stopped to help a little old lady whose car broke down. That's the THIRD little old lady Tom has helped this week!" The BVC gets a tear in his eye, and says, "You know, my beloved grandmother's car broke down last week, and no one stopped to help her for hours, and .... Young man, I like your style! Here's $20 million!"
Scenario 2. Hero is in his tux, on his way with a friend to a big gala where he's going to sit at a table with a Big Venture Capitalist who could fund his pets2.com company or his wireless pizza delivery company. He's got to make a good impression on BVC. But on the way, he passes a car disabled by the side of the road. A little old lady is standing there looking helpless.
Hero drives past. Friend says, "Did you see that little old lady?" Yeah, yeah, hero says. Here's the cell phone. Call a tow truck for her. We're going to be late if I don't step on it. Cell phone battery is dead, however. Hero curses, and then, angry at his own weakness, yanks the car around and drives back to her. Of course, this turns out to be more difficult than he imagined, because the car is on the other side of the highway, and it will take him another eight minutes to get there, and all the time, the friend is saying, "You know, we're going to be late. And this is so unlike you. I mean, there's money at stake, and you're stopping to help someone? Ha, ha, wait till I tell the guys at the office about this!"
Hero cusses him out. He's thinking that this is stupid, that he'll just wait till he gets to the gala and call from there, and then, a gorgeous young woman emerges from the car. She seems to have just awakened from a sound sleep and looks lusciously drowsy as she joins her elderly friend/relative by the side of the car. Hmmm. Hero decides maybe he'll be a good Samaritan after all. After all, it's dangerous, two ladies there on the shoulder with the cars whizzing by.... :)
So he pulls over, thinking that he'll get friend to do the actual work while he chats up the pretty sleepyhead. But friend resolutely refuses even to get out of the car. He knows nothing about engines, he says, and Hero is the engineer, after all.
Grumbling, Hero gets out of the car, and tells the little old lady that he'll look under the hood, but not to expect anything. He manages to keep from growling that she ought to get a cell phone and AAA insurance, but doesn't manage to keep himself from turning a more interested gaze on her young companion. He opens the hood and finds his worst fears are realized. The engine is old and filthy. Muttering to himself, he takes off the coat and hands it back to the pretty girl, who doesn't realize what he's doing and doesn't take it, and it drops onto the dusty shoulder. She picks it up and beats the dust out, apologizing, but the damage has been done-- it looks pretty bad. He also gets oil on his white shirt. But he fixes the problem and slams the hood down.
The little old lady begs him to take $20, but he refuses, thinking that he just ought to send her the dry-cleaning bills instead. But she seems like she's about to cry, and he can't stand it when women cry, and she sort of looks like his grandmother, and so he manages a smile when she hands him her card and asks him to come by Sunday for tea so she can thank him properly.
Sleepyhead has awakened completely by now and says something like, now, granny, he's probably very busy, and besides, you know it's not really safe to give out your address to people you don't know, and he thinks, wait a minute! I just ruined my shirt for you, and this is the thanks I get? I don't see YOU getting down there in the engine. Oh, no, you're too ladylike for that! But all he does is give her a cold smile and say, "I'm safe enough, but now I'm late, so let's get going."
He is about to drive off, but hears their car sputtering, and so, annoyed, he pulls over till they get it started, and he follows them to the next exit. By the time he gets to the gala, everyone is halfway through dinner, and the BVC is mad. You want me to fund you when you show up late and dissheveled? The friend explains about the little old lady, and the BVC says, a likely story. "Why not just admit that you're a loser instead of trying to pretend you were out helping people?" And he gets up and leaves without giving Hero any funding.
Hero is in despair. He reaches into his pocket to find the card of the little old lady, so he can rip it to shreds, but first glances at it and realizes that the little old lady is actually Mayzie Bigelow, the eccentric billionaire who wears old clothes and drives old cars but has zillions in the bank! And she's invited him to tea... thoughtfully he returns the card to his pocket and gets up and leaves.
Okay, which guy is more sympathetic? Hero #1 does the right thing cheerfully and invariably and it works out wonderfully for him. Hero #2 is grumpy and annoyed and doesn't do the right thing all the time but does the right thing now, if for the wrong reason, and suffers for it, and in the end finds that maybe it's led him to another direction.
I think #2 is a lot more fun. For one thing, his stopping to help actually influences the plot-- changes it in a way. It causes him conflict, and then gives him a new opportunity.
With #1, nothing he does really disrupts his life, and that's to be expected, because he's USED to doing good works. The good work doesn't really change much (the BVC gives him money, but might have anyway) and causes no conflict. He's always doing good works, so this doesn't show any progression or change within him. He's a good guy being good. He's displaying who he is, but not BECOMING anything. It's character display, not character development.
With #2, it's clear that this ISN'T who he is-- he's not benevolent generally. It's only this special set of circumstances, this particular moment, that inspires him to do good. Not that he's a rotten guy, because he does have an instinctive sympathy. But he tries first to take the easy way out (calling for a tow) and only then does he do something that actually puts him out (and he regards that as something of a weakness).
With #1, it all goes well, swimmingly, in fact. Every potential problem that comes up, he deals with. In fact, it's so easy for him, it's hard to see his action as heroic. He's Superman. This is all in a day's work.
With #2, it's not easy. It's hard. And the deeper he gets into it, the more trouble it is. Conflict. Much as he grumbles, we realize he's actually doing MORE than Superman, because it's harder for him.
With #1, he's too good to take advantage of any of this. I admire that, but I don't identify with it. <G>
With #2, he thinks he might as well take advantage of it. After all, she offered her card, and wanted to thank him... and besides, there's that pretty, wary granddaughter of hers. He has to prove to her that he's not an axe murderer.
It's a difficult process, creating sympathy, and I think we have to overcome our own natural tendency to make our characters too good to be true. It might help to analyze books with characters you find sympathetic, and actually identify the moment when you found yourself identifying with this person-- when the human connection was established.
Just keep in mind that character development depends on these particular circumstances causing a CHANGE in behavior... and that perfect people don't need to change.
Okay, here's your chance. Take your protagonist, and explore what can
make him/her more sympathetic (even while imperfect).
1. What's wrong with your protagonist? List 3 things that he/she
disparages about him/herself. (That is, he/she thinks these are wrong--
you can think they're great, but they're his/her faults by their measure,
Example: Tony thinks he's too emotional, that if he's not careful, his
emotions will get him in trouble. He also thinks that's not very macho.
He thinks he wasn't a good husband, that while he was faithful and
protective and brought home a good paycheck, he couldn't make the
marriage work even though they loved each other.
He thinks now he's maybe too ambitious, too proud of being the youngest
police captain ever in the town.
2. How can these faults paradoxically create sympathy?
Example: Tony's problem is actually that now he has his emotions so
harnessed that he isn't able to let himself feel much for very long.
This is sympathetic because we know he's trying to keep from being hurt,
that for a very macho cop, he's actually quite vulnerable. But this also
makes him sensitive to others' vulnerability-- he hates to hurt people
because he knows what it feels like. Of course, this makes him feel like
He wasn't a bad husband in BAD ways- he didn't run around or beat his
wife. And he knows how to love, and he won't say a word against his
ex-wife. It's sympathetic because he knows now how hard it is to keep
love working, and he's secretly determined to do better next time, though
he wouldn't admit that out loud.
He is too ambitious, really-- it was a problem in his marriage that he
was so hard-driving in his career. But it's a good masculine fault, and
since his ambition is to be a great cop and make the police force better
at protecting the citizens, we can forgive him-- he's all fired up to
keep us safe, even if it's partly for the wrong reason.
3. Take one of these faults and come up with an event that will not show
this person in a radiant glowing light of purity... might actually show
him/her stumbling because of this fault-- but describe it in a way that
makes the reader sympathize because it's so human.
Hmm... Tony is ambitious. So he has to do a good job of
police-chief-management. And he knows the police chief loves surprise
parties, and that his 30th anniversary on the force is coming up. So
because he can't afford to disappoint the police chief, he finds
himself in charge of the "surprise" party (which he knows the chief fully
expects). He doesn't want to do this-- isn't in a party mood... is very
busy trying to track down the bomber. But he knows he has to do it or
risk the chief's wrath.
4. How does this create sympathy?
Well, I think as much as furthering his ambitions, he doesn't want to
disappoint the chief, who loves these parties and loves pretending he's
surprised. That's a grudgingly (and secretly) sympathetic and human
reaction, and goes along with his reluctant sensitivity to others. And I
think we might all sympathize with the need to stay in good with our
bosses, even if it makes us feel like phonies.
5. What is one thing you can do when writing this scene to make the
sympathy work better?
I think maybe I could have him try to get out of the responsibility or
pass it off to an underling until the chief mentions how Tony's father
the sergeant used to give such great parties-- Sinatra records and
chianti and mom's lasagna and dancing and fun. And Tony thinks about his
wonderful buoyant dad, dead now for 4 years, and -then- agrees to do it,
because while he doesn't come out and say it, he knows his dad would want
him to do it. That is, don't have him agree-- have him resist-- until
his beloved dad is mentioned.
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
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