Creating Sympathy for Characters

By Rukhsana Khan

Sympathetic characters are the crux of a good story and involve a lot more than I’ll be dealing with in this article.

In all the writing exercises I’ve read, one of the biggest problems I’ve encountered is when the character is too nice, or too mean. If they’re too nice, too perfect, then it’s hard for the reader to identify with them because they’re not realistic. If they’re too mean, then why should the reader care what happens to him?

For a while, especially in movies, we were given the anti-hero. The guy with no redeeming qualities, who we were still supposed to root for. Perhaps Hollywood was jaded and believed we, the public, were too cynical to believe a good hero. Although the anti-hero was bad, at least he wasn’t quite as bad as the villain. And at least the anti-hero knew how to blast his enemy to smithereens. Two movies that illustrate my point are The Good, The Bad and the Ugly with Clint Eastwood, and The Last American Boy Scout with Bruce Willis. The first movie Good Bad, and Ugly works, while Last American Boy Scout doesn’t. (If you don’t remember The Last American Boy Scout, don’t be alarmed. It was a huge flop. But sometimes you can learn more from a flop than from a movie that works.)

In the Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood is a rather selfish gunslinger. But compared to what he’s up against, our sympathies automatically rest on him because at least he’s bad with style and he’s cute. In some ways the Ugly guy was the most important character. He’s the perfect foil and shows old Clint in a good light. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ugly has more dialogue than Clint, but it’s Clint who steals the show. And yet, in some of the Dirty Harry movies, Clint Eastwood also played an anti-hero, a fairly nasty cop who’s solving crimes that reflect some of his own misdeeds. While Clint was not as sympathetic a character in those Dirty Harry movies as he was in the spaghetti westerns, he still conveyed enough vulnerability to hold our sympathies. But I doubt that the Dirty Harry movies are as well- loved as the spaghetti westerns that made him famous.

In The Last American Boy Scout, Bruce Willis plays such an unsympathetic character, that you’re almost tempted to root for the villain. The character he plays has no redeeming qualities except for the fact that he’s on the ‘good’ side. I think this film was made at the height of Hollywood cynicism. And yet in the well-loved Die Hard, where his character is only slightly less nasty, there is something lovable about him. I think the difference is that in Die Hard we see the vulnerability of this hard-nosed New York cop, whereas in The Last American Boy Scout, we’re supposed to ‘ooh and aaah’ over the pyrotechnics. I’ve always loved the Die Hard movies because in addition to great plot, they have a strong character. And his quirkiness is endearing. I’ll always remember when Bruce is crawling through a ventilation shaft trying to get away from the bad guys and he stops for a moment in a wise-guy mode, flicks his lighter and says, "Come to the coast, relax, it’ll be fun!" or words to that effect. It catches the viewer off guard because it’s unexpected, and yet perfectly logical that he would be sarcastic about the invitation that got him out there and into all that trouble.

The other thing about The Good the Bad and the Ugly and the Die Hard flicks is the willingness of the writers to make things difficult for the protagonist. Both Clint and Bruce suffer setbacks. Clint almost dies of thirst at the hands of Ugly. Bruce cuts his feet with glass and is constantly getting beaten down.

What makes us admire these guys is their perseverance when most of us would long ago have called it quits.

Which brings me to the way to make your character sympathetic. I think the primary way to create sympathy is to pour on the troubles. Really be ruthless. Make him/her suffer. And then when things get really bad, up the ante and make them worse. To be a good writer you almost need a sadistic and masochistic streak in you.

Sadistic in that you’re deliberately making things tough on your protagonist, masochistic because in some ways, you are your protagonist, and you suffer along with him.

And through it all, your character may think of quitting, may even seriously consider it, but never ever allow them to do so.

Nor should you ease off on the pressure, or start feeling sorry for your protagonist. (I call it ‘not pulling any punches’. In that you’re like a boxer in the ring, and each blow you give your protagonist has to have your full force behind it. Otherwise, the reader will sense that you’re holding back.) Don’t dare let up until the turning point or climax. Once the story has climaxed, then you can start winding things down, though I suggest you still leave enough things unresolved and enough tension as to keep the reader’s interest. I accomplished this in my novel, Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile by leaving the reader wondering about a major character’s fate. On the second last page, the reader finds out, and shortly after I wrapped up the book.

My book, The Roses in My Carpets, is what I would consider an example of not pulling any punches. As a result it’s been called ‘sombre’ and even ‘bleak’ in some reviews.

When I workshop that story among school kids, I point out story structure; the whole beginning, middle and end scenario that we’ve all become so familiar with.

The beginning of a story requires three elements: problem, characters and setting. I ask the children what needs to happen in the middle of the story. The kids give various answers, but rarely do they say what I have learned needs to happen in the middle of the story. In the middle of a good story, the problem always has to get worse. And if the problem doesn’t get worse, it’s not a good story. And of course, in the end, the problem has to get solved. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough, in terms of story structure.

My story The Roses in My Carpets is about my Afghani refugee foster child. The beginning takes almost half the book before you find out what the problems really are (it’s a more complex story in that there are at least two problems in the story).

When I finished writing Roses, I actually felt sorry for my protagonist. He’s poor, every night he has nightmares, his father died, he feels burdened by his feelings of responsibility for his mother and sister, and he’s ashamed for taking help through a sponsor’s money. If that weren’t bad enough, his sister gets hit by a truck and both her legs are broken. (In writing the story, I deliberately used a matter of fact style, and understated the tragedy. That prevented the story from becoming saccharine.)

So his problems definitely get worse in the middle. But ironically, both of the problems in the story, are resolved partly due to the accident. And he has a stoicism that keeps the story from getting melodramatic.

When I ask kids what they think the problems in the story are they usually say the fact that he’s poor, that his father died, that he hates school. They seldom choose the real problems of the story. They forget the problems have to get solved at the end. And these aspects they’ve pointed out, are actually part of the setting, not the problems I’ve dealt with in the story.

In the story, the problems I’ve dealt with are the nightmares and his feelings toward sponsorship. This boy, even though he’s so poor, doesn’t want to take help. That’s the major problem in the story. And it’s what makes him a sympathetic character, in my opinion. Because we can all relate to and admire that kind of courage.

Another way to make your character sympathetic is that no matter how difficult things get, avoid letting them whine or complain. There’s nothing less attractive than a whiny protagonist. If you choose that as the problem the protagonist has to overcome, you’re going to have to counter that by endowing your protagonist with a lot of sympathetic characteristics in order to overcome the turn off of being whiny.

You may say that this isn’t being realistic. That there’s nothing more natural than for kids to start whining when things get tough, and you’re right. Kids whine all the time. But remember that books aren’t reality, just as dialogue isn’t real speech. And you can’t get away with as much in books as you can in real life. Just as dialogue should be crisp and to the point whereas real speech is full of embellishments that distract from the point the person is making, your protagonist should be free of a whiny attitude in order to be perceived as sympathetic.

So to summarize, in order to make a character sympathetic, turn on the pressure, make things very difficult for them, and don’t let them complain or give up under any circumstance.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.