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The other half of the sympathy equation

In my last post, I discussed why it is important for a novel’s protagonist to not only take actions within the story, but also display believable emotional reactions to the situations you put him in. When you have both, you create a sympathetic character for the reader. Those two elements—action and emotion—create a character readers will inherently want to root for.

In the comments on that post, astute reader Leah Raeder points out that there is more to it than that:

We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them.

She is absolutely right. Her point goes to the question of stakes: what does your character stand to gain or lose in any given scene? Compelling stakes are so powerful in enticing readers to sympathize with a character that they can actually rescue a story in which the protagonist fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

James Bond is a perfect example, which is exactly why the high-stakes poker game scene from Casino Royale jumped to mind as an illustration for this article. James Bond utterly fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

I give him full marks for action: Bond displays decisiveness in spades, and never delays an opportunity to take action. But emotionally, he fails. He doesn’t show us believable emotional responses. His cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor even in the hottest situations, and his devil-may-care attitude towards danger are not particularly realistic.

Yes, there are people in the world like that. That’s not the point. The point is, your readers probably aren’t like that themselves. Your readers are much more likely to be normal people who, you know, feel fear and stuff. They’re going to have trouble relating to someone who doesn’t.

Yet no one can argue that the character of James Bond has enjoyed wild success. Why? Because he’s always playing for very compelling, very high stakes. More than once, the fate of Queen and Country or even the whole world has rested on the outcomes of James Bond’s death-defying heroism.

The stakes in every Bond caper are so high they outweigh the protagonist’s stunted emotional development. Or, as Donald Maass put it very well in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.

When something important is at risk, we naturally expect characters to take extreme measures to eliminate that risk. Ask yourself, does every scene in your novel—like every scene in Casino Royale—bear directly on that risk or its consequences? If so, and especially if you get the first half of the sympathy equation right too, you might just have another Bond on your hands.

March 22, 2010 18:12 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, stakes, James Bond, Donald Maass

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What makes a sympathetic hero?

One of my favorite writers on Twitter, K.M. Weiland, posed a question today as to what qualities make a protagonist into a sympathetic hero. That is, what is it that makes readers care about the character? What makes readers view the character as a hero? It’s a great question.

K.M. will probably give her own notions on her blog, and I hope she does, but in the meantime here’s my take on it. In answering, I’m going to tackle heroism first.

Heroism Heroes are characterized by action. The hero actually does things. He or she doesn’t sit around watching things happen, or waiting for situations to resolve themselves. You may have a protagonist who is passive like that—although I wouldn’t recommend it—but readers won’t view that person as a hero.

What distinguishes heroes from other characters is a personality that turns toward action when faced with problems. That’s the hero’s default response: to decide what to do, and then do it. Other characters may, by default, run away. They may put their blinders on and ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. But not a hero. A hero faces the problem in all its possibly terrifying ugliness, and gets to work. That’s what makes a hero.

And please, don’t let the word “action” confuse you. While this does apply to action novels, it’s broader than that. I’m talking about “choices a character makes and follows through on.” It’s not just, for example, running into the burning building to save a child, or barreling into a firefight with guns drawn against the bad guys. In the right circumstances, simple things like picking up the phone to call your mother can be every bit as dramatic and heroic as any death-defying act.

Sympathy That said, actions alone do not guarantee that a hero will be sympathetic. You can have a character who is the most action-oriented hero in the world—decisive, never at a loss for what to do—and yet still fail to have readers care about him in the least.

To get sympathy, you need emotion, not action. To engender sympathy in your readers, you need to your hero to display believable emotional responses to the difficult, terrifying problems you throw at them. An iconic example that jumps to mind is from Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones runs from the boulder. Classic.

It works, because Indy shows obvious fear in the situation. He doesn’t just see the boulder, calmly say “Oh, a boulder,” and scoot away. No, he RUNS! away. Hard. Fast. Terrified. Showing the obvious and believable emotion creates sympathy because viewers know how they would feel in that situation. Most of them would be similarly terrified. I know I would.

It works the same in books too. Confront your character with a dramatic problem, and readers will know how they themselves would feel in that situation. When your character feels the same way or a similar way, that creates sympathy.

A sympathetic hero, then, is a hero who has ordinary, believable feelings about difficult situations, but who isn’t paralyzed by those feelings. A hero is character who acts anyway, despite those feelings.

Mix it up While you’re busy creating all these emotionally difficult moments of action, take care provide some variety. Why? Because readers aren’t all the same. Let’s take some classic phobias as examples. Some people are afraid of heights. Others, of spiders. Or snakes. Or confined spaces. Or the number 13. Some people are afraid of confrontation. Or of people being upset with them. Or of social situations.

Emotional challenges come in all shapes and sizes, and your readers won’t actually sympathize with all of them. That’s why you should mix it up.

Let’s say your hero is afraid of heights. So, naturally, you set a pivotal moment of action on top of a tall high-rise building. The kind that’s tall enough that if you fall, you’re going to have plenty of time to think about it on the way down. Stepping out onto that roof top in order to take action is going to be an emotionally challenging moment for the character. But in order to act, he or she needs to bypass the fear and do it anyway.

For readers who are also afraid of heights, this scene is going to resonate with them like crazy. They are totally going to sympathize with the character’s fear, and when they see the character overcome it, they’re going to totally view that character as a hero.

But not me. I actually enjoy heights. On some intellectual level, yes, I can recognize and appreciate the character’s difficulty. But it’s just not going to create the same sense of sympathy in me as it would in an acrophobic reader.

However, I’m not such a big fan of social situations and being the center of attention. Public speaking is very, very hard for me. So, show me a character who is shy like me but is called upon to convince a crowd of skeptical listeners to go march on City Hall, and I’m there. You’ve got my sympathy.

I’m not saying to make your characters into total neurotic wrecks so as to resonate with the fears of as many readers as possible. But if it fits with your story, try to give us more than one. Your character will feel more real, more fully developed that way, and will inevitably be more sympathetic for it.

Update: Due to a particularly brilliant comment on this post by one of my readers, there is now a Part 2 article that looks at another very (very!) useful way to create sympathy. James Bond uses it all the time, and look at how successful that character is!

March 17, 2010 19:46 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, action, phobias, emotion

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Why you should steal your character's shoes

Have you ever struggled with a character who just wouldn’t come to life? Who seemed great in your head, but who just laid there like a dead fish once you put him on the page?

Maybe you need to steal his shoes.

It may be that the character has too many advantages. You may, as the saying goes, need to make things worse before the book can get better. I learned this lesson from a fantasy novel I critiqued once, although I believe the principle applies in any genre.

The novel in question was a pretty straightforward fantasy arc: hero has to brave a bunch of dangers in order to save the princess. Nothing wrong with that at all. But the hero was, well, too heroic.

He was terribly strong, with the strength of three ordinary men. He wielded an enormous sword that most men couldn’t even lift. He was an exceptional swordsman, having been trained by the best swordmaster in all the land.

Thus fully prepared, he set off to battle.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is certainly a place in the world for hack-and-slash fantasy novels, where heroes with rippling muscles lay waste to armies of the enemy, then retire to the local tavern for a tankard of well-earned ale and a wench (not necessarily in that order). Plenty of books like that have sold plenty of copies.

However, the characterization in them is rather thin. And since this blog is all about characterization, let’s fix that.

This setup wasn’t very dramatic because the hero was too well matched to the task. His backstory eliminated any real challenge from his task. No challenge, no drama. The hero was such a bad-ass, right out of the gate, that of course we expect him to succeed. That’s boring. We need to saddle the hero with some misfortunes. We need to take him down a few pegs before we’ll have any interesting drama to work with.

We need, in other words, to steal his shoes. You can go two ways here:

Change the backstory: This is a form of shoe-stealing that takes place before the hero ever gets the shoes to begin with. Rather than having the hero be a muscle-bound, swordmaster jock, make him a skinny weakling. A shoeshine boy or barrel-maker’s apprentice or something. Give him a background that is totally ill-suited to braving dangers and saving princesses. Then, of course, put him in a position where if he doesn’t save the princess, nobody else will.

Oh, let the mighty fall By this I mean go ahead and start with the super-jock, but before he gets to the real adventure, systematically strip him of everything he thinks he needs in order to succeed. Have him break his sword. Give him a case of mono (or, it being fantasy, a curse) that saps his strength and stamina. Let a mugger rob him blind. Steal his actual shoes. Leave him bereft of everything except himself, his own inner drive to succeed, then see whether he still has the heart to brave the dangers and save the princess.

Either way is good. I mean, who do you admire more? A cookie-cutter hero who does something heroic, or a non-hero/fallen-hero facing certain death who plunges in anyway and gets the job done?

I find the latter enormously more interesting: Take away all his advantages—or never give him any to begin with—then we’ll see what he’s really made of in a crisis.

Both strategies inherently bring your character’s inner self to the fore, while heightening the danger and thus the drama. But what both strategies also do for you, as a writer, is that they also steal your crutches.

It’s easy to structure a plot in which the ubermensch hero wins. It’s seductively easy to rely on the character’s great strengths to get out of any jam or solve any problem. Sadly, things that are easy are rarely much good. But when the hero can’t win through brute force, you’ll have to create a plot in which he uses cleverness and other innate qualities to win the day. I guarantee you, it will be a much more interesting plot to read, with a much more fully developed hero.

October 09, 2009 16:12 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, drama, protagonist, obstacles

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