Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Creating Sympathetic Characters

The ability to create sympathetic characters is a real talent, and one which I'm afraid I'm not so good at. Maybe because what other people consider sympathetic, I consider pathetic and manipulative. Unfortunately, it is the heroine and hero of your book who will ultimately sell it for you, and that is the difficulty.

Because I tend to ramble and know I will ramble, I'll let you in on another secret, right up front. In addition to the fact that selling your book depends upon how well you bring your characters to life (and not on the plot--believe it or not--unless your plot is something like the DaVinci Code), here is another consideration: the reader doesn't necessarily have to like your characters as long as they understand them.

The key is giving your readers enough of a glimpse inside the head of your characters to make them sink into the character, whether they ultimately like them or not.

I've been accused many times of creating unsympathetic characters and after careful analysis, I've realized that that phrase is not really what everyone means. What editors, agents and critique partners mean when they complain about unsympathetic characters is that you have not provided them with enough information to understand the character's emotional state and situation. They can't bond with the characters.

You can have a character who is really, really a terrible person, but you can get away with it as long as:
  • You reveal the character's motivation
  • The character's actions or dialogue are consistent with their personality
  • The character's situation is portrayed well enough for readers to understand why the character is reacting in the way you describe

Within the first chapter of your book, and preferably within the first paragraph, you need to tell your readers who your main character is, what their immediate situation is, what their desires are, and what is stopping them from attaining their desired goal. Sure, that's a lot, but without it, you are risking manuscript rejections adorned with the phrase, "ultimately, I did not sympathize with your characters."

When I first got a rejection with the phrase "I did not sympathize with your characters" I was completely stunned. I ran to my local writing group and asked for help. They suggested showing the "good side" of the character by giving them a pet cat or some such thing. Have them caring for younger siblings or an ancient grandmother. Have the heroine be a victim of child abuse in her youth (apparently a much-loved tactic that Dean Koontz uses frequently).

Not a good suggestion.

This was terribly misguided advice on a number of levels, but unfortunately, I think others have gotten this advice because I see similarly manipulative "add-ons" in other stories. When you do something like this, instead of creating a sympathetic character, your reader just feels, well, manipulated. Lately, if I read a book where the heroine is just a drip and she's forced into a stupid situation with the hero because she's trying to take care of dear old grandma and 3 younger siblings, or she has some kind of a pet which doesn't really have any function in the story, then I feel like the author is just trying to manipulate my emotions and s/he thought I was stupid enough to fall for it.

Me--I ain't that stupid.

This method creates what I call false sympathy. It doesn't actually cause the reader to become one with the character, it just makes them feel sort of sorry for the character.

Our goal is to make the reader become one with the character. We need this, because in the course of our story, our character may say or do things which are not unsympathetic, because we all do things that show our flaws. It makes us, and our characters, human. So we can't just make our hero and heroine into "all things good and sweet" unless you want them all to be drips. We need them to do the occassional stupid/bad/not-politically-correct/flawed thing, but while they are doing it, we want the reader to submerge into the character because they understand the hero/heroine and understand why the character is acting in such a way.

You cannot accomplish this by blatant manipulation.

You can only accomplish this by letting the reader into the character's head. I have a very good friend, Charlotte Featherstone, who has totally mastered this. At the beginning of her novels, her characters are really, really flawed. I mean, they have terrible problems, including things like substance abuse which is normally something I would never sympathcize with. And yet, I love her characters, I feel so close to them and understand completely what is driving them.

She accomplishes this by sinking deeply into the heads of the hero and heroine within the first page or pages, explaining their situation, their goals, and exactly how they feel about it. She lets us into their feelings, all their frustrations, fears, hopes and dreams. Once you understand what drives them emotionally, it becomes impossible not to want to know what happens to them and how they find their heart's desire.

That's the secret. Not a pet cat or orphaned sister.

For me, because I tend to write mysteries and love characters who are more cerebral, it has been very difficult for me to portray these deep feelings, because the characters are actively trying to suppress them. I also tend to like and write characters who are not politically correct and who like to say things that could get misinterpreted. That's where it is even more important to give your reader the information they need to understand the character's situation and feelings. Particularly what is driving them.

One flaw I feel victim to when writing mysteries, is the notion that I wanted to hold back information about the characters situations and feelings to let them be gradually revealed and surprise the reader. The surprise was that the reader never got far enough into the book to care if I revealed the hero's motivation and background on page 87.

You can't do a background dump on page one, but you have to establish who the characters are, what they are feeling and why they are feeling it. If there is some tragedy in their past, you have to describe it in some form or fashion that will form a plausible basis for how the character is acting now. You don't have to reveal everything, but you do have to reveal enough to establish the situation.

Back to unsympathetic characters and not revealing enough about their emotional state.

I had one character, John Archer, who would say things to his grown nieces such as, "Don't be absurd, you silly child." This was meant in a gently mocking, teasing, kidding sort of way. In fact, a lot of my own relatives say things like that to each other (and worse) and it gives me warm fuzzies when they do. It makes me laugh. I love it when people do that mock insulting thing, because it means they are comfortable enough with you to know: you can take it, you can dish it out, and you aren't going to burst into tears. Let's face it, you're only completely polite to people you hate. So, I know they aren't really mad and don't really think I'm either immature, absurd, or silly--or maybe I have actually done or said something that is, but I know they are just teasing me about it. If they were seriously angry with me or trying to really ridicule me, the entire tone would change, and so would the wording.

Sidebar: I guess it's not politically correct to tease anyone any more, which makes me very sad. I keep having this pointed out to me as a terrible flaw in me and my characters. :-(

Anyway, tone is really hard to write. So although I wrote John saying that phrase, almost all the people who read it thought he was this terribly mean person and why would he suddenly say such a terrible thing to his niece to whom he has previously been so nice. They totally did NOT get this. So you either have to hit the reader over the head with it by saying something such as:

"Don't be absurd, you silly child," John said in a teasing voice.

Or risk having 90% of your readers sit back, aghast, at how your previously nice character suddenly turned mean to his nieces. The key is to let your reader know how the character means it. One would hope you would not have to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer to make them understand, but perhaps you do. Perhaps I think readers are smarter than that and perhaps they are not.

Still, I'd like to think a few out there get it and aren't insulted by it when they do get it.


So think about it when you write your characters. Don't make them perfect, just make them understandable.


Bernita said...

You've hit it.
I have the same problems.

Anonymous said...

About your last bit "Don't be absurd, you silly child."

You don't have to hit readers over the head by saying "He said teasingly." Instead you can introduce this early on by having the niece say something similar to him so that the reader sees that by his reaction that this is a normal and loving thing they do. Or accompany those words with an amicable gesture, like a hug or a kiss on the forehead.

Everyone has been raised differently, therefore they will hear each sentence in the way they grew up hearing it. The trick is remembering this simple yet easily overlooked fact and compensate with subtle details that give context when tone is impossible.