Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More on Creating Sympathetic Characters

Previously, I wrote about creating sympathetic characters, and the focus was on making sure your audience understood your characters' motivations. If your readers know why a character is doing something--even if it is something bad--they are willing to go along for the ride. Mostly.

There's another piece to this puzzle, however. In creating any character, you have to give the reader something they can like about the character. I'm avoiding the word "trait" because that doesn't carry the right connotations for me. The list of these crucial characteristics is not very broad, because the real ones--the ones that will make your readers care about the character no matter what that character does--are just a few in number. They are the ones which make you see some glimmer of the best that humanity has to offer. They are what define us as humans.

Your characters don't have to always display this quality, but they have to display it near the beginning of your book and during the worst moments in the book. They have to display it at the beginning in order to keep your readers reading, and during the darkest moment or moments because this quality shows who they are.

Characters do not need to portray every quality in this list. One is often sufficient. You don't want to end up creating a Sir Galahad who was so perfect that most readers simply couldn't stand reading about him (although I'm just referring to the popular conception of him--not the somewhat tarnished paragon of virtue in the Arthurian legends and Morte de Arthur). Nobody likes perfect people, unless said person is a villain. That's also true for physical perfection, so keep that in mind.

So what is this list of qualities?

1) Integrity. On some level, your character has to show they have some level of integrity. Even a hero who is a crook may have a code--like not ratting on their friends--and it's critical to create a situation in the beginning of the novel that shows the hero or heroine acting according to some internal code.

2) Honesty. Again, the hero/heroine doesn't have to show honesty in all situations, but there must be a line and the reader must realize the hero/heroine has a definite line they will not cross. For example, the hero could lie like a rug to most women--until he meets the heroine. Then, he starts feeling like a cad when he lies to her and gradually, he finds he can't lie at all to her, revealing an innate sense of honesty he never realized he had until he met her, blah, blah. Obviously, this is an angle that works well in romances, but it also works in other situations and other genres.

3) Decency. This one needs little or no explanation. The hero and heroine in most works (other than literary fiction or erotica) must have some sense of decency. No lusting after children, for example--which I had a hard time even writing.

4) A Sense of Duty. This is a great one--it's one of the big reasons military guys/cops/firemen/S.E.A.L.S and so on are so hot. Because they get it. They have a sense of duty. Women readers translate this internally as the type of man she can depend on, and who won't disappear on the way to pick up a loaf of bread when she's 9 months pregnant. This trait is what made Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so sympathetic, and ultimately, what let him destroy the ring and its evil.

5) Protectiveness. If your character sees a wrong being committed against someone, and tries to stop that wrong, you can guarantee that your readers will like your character.

If your hero and heroine display any one of these qualities, you will create a character the reader can trust on some level. A character the reader can sympathize with. Even if the character is otherwise a pretty bad person.

Here is a beautiful example.
In the movie Payback starring Mel Gibson, he plays Porter, and he's really not a nice guy. In fact, he's pretty much a psycho-criminal-dirtbag. He and another criminal steal $140,000, but Porter's wife conspires with his partner to steal the money and leave Porter for dead. There is a lot of violence. Porter acts pretty badly. That's basically the movie.

But you know two things about Porter: you know his wife and partner betrayed him so you feel sympathy for him at the beginning; and throughout the movie, Porter only wants his $70,000--his share. He's not greedy. He's actually got this weird streak of integrity.

This is not my favorite movie, and I don't particularly like Porter, but because of this stubborn streak of integrity that makes him actually decline to take the entire $140,000 when offered it, he gets your attention.

The script writers gave him three things to make the audience care:

  • Porter is betrayed at the beginning and left for dead by his wife and partner. That helps, but you can't rely on the "I'm a victim" sympathy-vote for long. I don't recommend this for heroines unless she proves herself to be strong later because it pushes her too close to the wussy-baby heroine. However, a lot of movies use this as the initial audience grabber (think: The Punisher and a lot of Steven Segal's movies.) So once they have your attention, the writers go on to give Porter...
  • Integrity. Throughout the movie, Porter constantly reiterates--he only wants his share, not the entire $140,000. He's not greedy.
  • Protectiveness. Toward the end we meet a new love interest for Porter. And he gets to protect her from his...yes...his ex-partner.

So even though Porter is a dirtbag, the audience can at least root for him because he displays some of these essential qualities that we idealize. He shows some glimmers of the best we humans have to offer.

And that's how you create a sympathetic character, even out of someone who you actually don't want to meet. Particularly in a dark alley.


Anonymous said...

Great to read this post as I'm dealing with this very issue, in a new novel I'm shaping now. The trouble is that I have 2 unlikeables who are basically sympathetic at the core, but who make the main character's life miserable. I feel that in order for them to be sympathetic they need to have their voices heard, and the format of the novel only allows that at a distance. I'll have to trust that when they do get their say, their goodness, what there is of it, will come through.

Amy said...

It really is difficult, isn't it? I, personally, like the characters a lot of others find unlikeable or unsympathetic because they are more interesting. The trick seems to be giving the reader enough information to at least understand why they are acting as they act. Sometimes doing it through dialog is enough.
Good luck--I know it's not easy.