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Using the bystander effect in your novels

Take a look at that picture. What do you see in it? A street scene. Tumbled flats of vegetables, corn, green beans, and what look like cucumbers spilled on the pavement. People walking past. What don’t you see? Anybody lifting a finger to help clean it up. The original picture this one was cropped from has over a dozen people in it, and every one of them is probably thinking something along the lines of “Ooh, glad that’s not my problem.”

That’s the bystander effect. It is the tendency for people to offer less help to strangers the more other people are around. The ironic thing is that if there had been only one other person on the street when this little accident took place, that person would have been much more likely to step in and offer assistance.

Why does it happen?

The reasons behind it are pretty straightforward, and psychologists seem to be of the impression that a number of factors contribute to the bystander effect. One is “diffusion of responsibility” (don’t you just love the fancy names psychologists come up with for everything?): not doing anything because you figure surely someone else will. Another is social proof: when confronted with an emergency situation, people’s initial reaction is to look around to see how other people are responding in order to decide how to respond. So everyone looks around, and sees everyone else also just looking around—that is, not doing anything because they’re also busy making the same internal assessment—and decides that the situation must not be all that serious. A third is uncertainty and fear, not being confident of one’s ability to actually help, or to help in a way that the help-ee will actually appreciate. These are all pretty normal feelings, but they all add up to folks not helping other folks as much as we might hope.

So what can you do with it in your novels? Three things, which revolve around the different roles present in these kinds of situations:


As I’ve counseled many times before, it’s good to do bad things to your main characters, so your poor protagonists may well be the ones in a scene who would like some help.

If you’re writing in an intimate point of view, either first person or third-person limited, then the POV character is the stand-in for the reader. This creates a wonderful opportunity to create reader empathy: Let the POV character need help, but not get any. Let any bystanders in the scene, well, stand by. If you portray the POV character’s need for help as well as his or her growing sense of desperation as nobody steps up to offer that help, you can really put readers on the edge of their seats. Basically, by giving readers enough information to understand that the emergency situation really is an emergency—that help is genuinely needed—they’ll be just as frustrated at the useless bystanders as your POV character.

This can work really well in an opening scene, as a means for quickly bonding the reader to your POV characters in order that the reader cares what happens to them. You need to be careful not to let your POV characters be so utterly helpless and pathetic that readers can’t root for them—which probably means letting your characters solve their own problems after failing to get help from anybody else—but it can be a great way to create a character-based hook for a novel.

Useless bystander

On the flip-side, you might put a POV character into the useless bystander role. Why might you do this? Because it works well in the early chapters of novels that are driven by inner character arcs as a way to drive home the character’s starting point. When you have a character who is going to experience some kind of inner growth as the story progresses, you need a way to show that they are presently in an emotionally blocked or stunted state. Showing that POV character being unable to render aid and assistance can achieve this.

Be careful, though; there is an obvious danger. It’s easy for readers to decide they don’t like a character who sees someone in need but decides not to help. The way around this pitfall is to make sure the reader understands two things: why the POV character cannot help, and that the POV character feels bad about it. You have to let the reader into the character’s head enough to see the character’s internal debate over whether to help, enough to help the reader understand the choice not to, and enough to see that despite that choice the character would have liked to help. Show us the character’s impulses towards helping, and the counter-impulses against helping. If you show us the struggle, we’re more likely to feel positively towards the character even though the character’s better nature loses.

Which is kind of the point. It’s that very self-defeat by one’s own inner demons that sets the stage for the book’s inner character arc.


Lastly, of course, there’s the hero. The bystander who doesn’t merely stand by, but in fact goes to the aid of the person in need. If you’re writing some kind of action/adventure book, you’re in very good company by using this technique to build up your character as a heroic figure. How many books have we seen that involve some variant on POV characters rescuing kittens from trees, chasing down muggers in order to return an old lady’s purse, et cetera? It’s common, because it works, but I caution you to be careful here, too.

The common-ness of this technique pushes it dangerously close to cliche territory. Further, it’s very easy to overdo it and end up with an implausibly melodramatic result. That’s fine, if you’re writing a tongue-in-cheek superhero novel or something, but most of the time it damages the reader’s belief in the character. I mean, sure, real life does have its selfless heroes who, without hesitation, run into burning buildings or dive into flood-swollen rivers to save other people.

But most novels need something a little more tame in order for readers to believe in the character as a real person, and that something is exactly what those real-life heroes don’t have: hesitation. Again, it’s all about letting the reader into the character’s head. For my money, you get a much more believable and sympathetic hero if you show the character’s internal debate about helping. The only difference between the hero, then, and the useless bystander is which side of the character’s personality wins the debate. So let us see the character asking himself, “Does that person really need help? Should I jump in? The character is a proxy for the reader here, too, so it’s very helpful to show the character asking himself the same kinds of questions readers would be asking themselves in that situation.

Then, all you need is something to break that internal logjam in favor of acting. It could be anything. Empathy for the victim because the hero suffered a similar problem in the past isn’t bad, if a little cliched still. For male POV character’s, there’s always the allure of playing the hero in order to impress a girl. That always works. But my favorite reason to jump in is frustration at not seeing anybody else jump in. You take the POV character from seeing the situation and thinking “gosh, somebody should really help that person,” to wondering “why is nobody helping?” and finally to “Dammit! I guess I’ll help, then!”


So, there you go. The bystander effect, and three ways to make it work for you in your novels. I’m curious to know, is this something you’ve used in your novels before? Is it something that could help your current work-in-progress? Tell us about it down in the comments!

August 03, 2010 21:34 UTC

Tags: character, bystander effect, victim, hero, sympathy, inner character arc

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Five more ways to create sympathetic characters

Some while back, I wrote a couple of articles on creating sympathetic characters; one about emotion and another one about stakes. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to do a third article with some more specific, hands-on strategies for creating sympathetic characters. Today is that day.

But first a bit of context, because like everything in narrative writing, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Sympathy arises from the conclusions readers draw about your characters’ personalities based on what you show the characters doing. This includes everything that is observable to the reader: characters’ actions, their dialogue, their inner monologue if you’re into that kind of thing, the way they treat other characters, the choices they make.

All the stuff you show in the narrative does the work of telling the reader what kind of people your characters are, so you don’t have to. That is, you shouldn’t ever have to write “Stanley was a prince among men,” or words to that effect, because Stanley’s observable actions and so forth should make that clear. So keep that in mind: everything else in this article relates to stuff you can show for the specific purpose of helping readers sympathize with your characters.

Use humor

People like funny people, and readers like funny characters. Few things make people more readily comfortable with one another than as good natured humor. To this end, you can show your character being funny, cracking jokes or making witty comments. You can show your character having a humorous outlook on life, finding humor in unusual places, or even resorting to humor as a coping mechanism when situations get particularly grim—sometimes you have to laugh to keep from falling into a complete panic. You can also show your character readily laughing at themselves, rather than taking themselves too seriously.

These are all reactions that, in real people, tend to put us at ease with one another. Jokes, witticisms, and wry commentary give us mirth. Humor in the face of danger is certainly easier to get along with than panic. (Would you want to be stuck in a foxhole with a soldier who was laughing in the face of death, or one who was having a total freak-out meltdown?) A person who easily laughs at himself is someone we aren’t likely to offend easily, which allows us to be more relaxed around him as well. If it works in life, it works in fiction.

Use Admiration

Humor works great for creating sympathy among social peers, but when you need to create sympathy for a character who is inherently more aloof or is intentionally not humorous, admiration may be the ticket. The strategy here is to show that character being masterful at some non-trivial skill. We all tend to admire people who are very, very good at what they do. They may suck at everything else (witness sympathetic jerks like Dr. House), but we can still admire their hard-won skills and root for them on that basis.

This can work in almost any book, because chances are there is some reason relating to skills why that character is your protagonist. You gave the character special skills for some specific purpose relating to the plot. Build on those to create sympathy by showing those skills in action. Even better is when you can show those skills used in unexpected ways but to great effect. MacGyver is probably the most obvious example there.

The Golden Rule

This one is kind of obvious: if you want people to like your character, show the character being a kind to others. I suspect that’s rather self-explanatory, so I won’t belabor it. Rather, I’ll talk about the danger of misusing the Golden Rule.

Human beings (which, never forget, includes your readers) are keenly sensitive in terms of reading the motivations behind people’s actions. If we see a person doing something nice for someone else, we don’t usually have trouble determining whether the action is sincere or disingenuous. Whether the action comes from the heart, or comes via some ulterior motive. For example, when we see politicians kissing babies in a crowd or filling sandbags at the site of a flooding river, we can be pretty sure they are motivated at least in part by the presence of TV cameras in the vicinity. We all know politicians are drawn to photo-ops like bees to honey.

In novels, the Golden Rule fails when you toss in scenes of overt kindness that seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Readers spot the photo-op scene immediately. I found a scene in a client’s novel once where, for no particular reason I could determine, the protagonist suddenly went to the children’s ward at the hospital to bring balloons and ice cream to the sick kiddies. So by all means use the Golden Rule (I wish more people did so in real life!), but for it to be convincing, acts of kindness need to have some plausible connection to the greater context of the scene they’re in or the plot at large, they have to be in proportion to the situation, and there shouldn’t seem to be anything in it for the character other than perhaps someone else’s thanks and appreciation.

Oh, and you have to do it consistently. The ice cream scene in that book was basically the only selfless, nice thing that character did for anybody else in the whole book. A one-time act of kindness does not earn your character a free pass on sympathy for the rest of the book.

"Glad it’s not me!"

You can also trigger readers’ sympathy by being cruel to your characters. Visit upon them misfortunes they don’t deserve. Show bad things happening to your characters, not only so we can see how they rise to the occasion, but also for sympathy. Think about every time you’ve ever driven past another motorist who has been stopped by the police, especially when you notice you’re a few miles-per-hour over the speed limit yourself: some part of you is feeling bad for the other driver’s misfortune while feeling lucky that it wasn’t you.

Make their job harder

Whatever the major story goal is that a character wants to achieve, you can add more sympathy by doing something to the character that makes their job harder. Give them some kind of handicap in that pursuit. It could be a literal, physical handicap: a marathon racer who tears a ligament. It could be an emotional handicap, like fear of needles for someone who has to get some immunizations before traveling overseas on a business trip. It could be a resource handicap, such as trying to get through college while being dirt poor. It could be a skill handicap, like being stranded after having all their stuff stolen in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language.

Whatever situation your character is in, whatever goal they have in a specific scene or for the whole book, see if there’s something you can change about the character (either inwardly or outwardly) that would make the goal harder to achieve. There usually is, and it’s always a great way to add believable sympathy.


The reader’s sympathy doesn’t come for free. You do have to work for it. Fortunately, creating sympathetic characters isn’t as hard as a lot of things in novel-craft. There are lots of ways to create it, and for the most part, readers want to sympathize with your characters anyway. They’re predisposed to do so, and probably will if you give any kind of decent effort at portraying your characters sympathetically.

And one more tip: these tips work for your book’s villains, too...

June 22, 2010 20:21 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, show don't tell

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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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