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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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Posted by Chris Rivan on March 17, 2010 21:34 UTC

I not only agree with you, I’m working on a similar blog about a similar topic myself, based on a conversation we had in a writer’s forum about two years ago.

As a fantasy writer, I’m sick of 14 year old characters finding a sword in a field and becoming a tactical genius, able to best seasoned warriors in the field and expert generals in the battle chamber, but worse than that is the fantasy hero who becomes a warrior without paying any of the COSTS associated with it. They wade in, bloody sword waving, and never seem to recognize that they are ending lives. They never respond to any of the pure, naked terror that is warfare, even with sword and dagger. They never show a post-combat adrenal response (hands shaking, nausea, nightmares.) They just wipe off their swords and move along like nothing happened.

I very much like your points. I’d like to link to your blog but I’m still fumbling with blogger to add non blogger writers to my blog roll. Once I figure it out I’ll link to you, with your permission.

Posted by Jason Black on March 17, 2010 22:26 UTC

You may certainly link to me. Thanks! And I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

You touch on a larger point about (especially) fantasy literature: costs.

Most books on fantasy literature will say, somewhere, that in order for readers to suspend their disbelief magic, that magic needs to adhere to whatever specific set of rules you make up. But there have to be rules. And further, for magic to create drama, it must come with some cost attached. Otherwise it’s just free power, and nothing undermines drama faster than giving a character free power to do whatever they want.

But you’re absolutely right. The same holds true for swords, fighting, and battles. If they don’t have a cost, they aren’t realistic and they aren’t dramatic. If you don’t make the characters incur a cost the first time there’s any kind of a fight in your book, they’ll quickly realize that as a writer you’re too chicken to ever let anything bad happen to your characters. Thus, the characters are invulnerable, protected by (literally) the Word of God within that novel. No danger—no costs—no drama.

An excellent point. You should write that up on your blog. It’s a little off-topic for mine, but it’s a great lesson.

Posted by Noel on March 18, 2010 03:02 UTC

Loved your article, I’m sure when I go back to work on my stories I will consider some of the things you mentioned.

Posted by Iapetus999 on March 18, 2010 04:06 UTC

I had a comment the other day during a critique. I have a character who’s mean, mean, mean. Then another character has a bout of nausea and the mean character pushes back onlookers and assists the sick character who she’s been in conflict with. Now it doesn’t make up for everything she did up ‘til then, but the sudden act of kindness threw my readers, because it showed a side they hadn’t seen before. The point is that one way to “sell” a hero is to show another this case a vulnerable side.

Posted by Theresa Milstein on March 18, 2010 13:55 UTC

I’ve been wrestling with a protagonist who is too passive. I want her to develop, but I think I need to give her more action/dimension or she won’t be sympathetic. You’ve confirmed my suspicions, so it’s time for another rewrite.

Posted by Liberty on March 18, 2010 18:40 UTC

Great thoughts, and I think you said it very well. I saw K.M.’s question as well, and it’s one of those that would need thought to respond to, which I think you did very well here!

Posted by Teresa Frohock on March 19, 2010 19:55 UTC

I have to agree with Chris Rivan; I stopped reading fantasy for many years because of many of the factors Chris talks about.

Meanwhile, Jason, I really liked your article; however, I believe more in trying to achieve empathy for my characters rather than sympathy. Sympathy for a character is almost abstract, but if I can create empathy, where my reader is so enthralled by character’s personality and the trials he or she is experiencing, then I feel like I’ve been successful.

I like unlikely heroes, people who believe they are beaten, but who find the strength to rise from their ashes to reclaim their lives – and maybe the realm too.

Excellent post, thanks!

Posted by Leah Raeder on March 20, 2010 02:30 UTC

Jason, great posts and comments—found your blog through Writer Unboxed and subscribed to your feed. It’s excellent to get an editor’s (sorry, book doctor’s) insight into narrative issues.

I especially enjoy the discussion about the costs of power in fantasy—it’s a problem in sci-fi, too, where technology often substitutes for magic.

The areas where I feel this problem is most out of control are in comics and cartoons: power is granted freely and often without cost. Invincible heroes battle invincible heroes. Every consequence is reversible. Every injury is reparable. I find it nigh-impossible to invest emotionally in stories where cost and consequence are mere inconveniences.

It’s similar to the problem of writing about immortal characters: without death, disease, age, failure to achieve dreams/goals in the allotted time, etc. to threaten a character, why do we care what happens to them? Often romance or the destruction/domination of the world are substituted. For certain types, I guess the death of a romance can seem more perilous than actual death.

This discussion brings to mind George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The series is notorious for killing off beloved characters. Martin gets it right, though: death is real and is the end (nearly always); power comes with consequence and peril. You truly feel something when a PoV character dies. The impact ripples through the narrative. And the powerful do not enjoy their power unmolested for long.

This plays into sympathy for characters too. We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them. That lies at the heart of creating believable and evocative conflicts for a character to face and overcome.

Again, great post. Will be back for more.

Posted by Jason Black on March 20, 2010 03:38 UTC

I find it nigh-impossible to invest emotionally in stories where cost and consequence are mere inconveniences.

Well, you’re certainly not alone. Still, not all comics and cartoons fall prey to that flaw. For instance, I don’t think the following two facts are a coincidence:

Fact: a mint condition issue of Amazing Fantasy #15, a comic book from ages past that contains the first ever appearance of Spiderman, can sell for upwards of a quarter of a million dollars. This is tops in the comic book market.

Fact: Spiderman’s creation story implicates Peter Parker himself in the death of his uncle, as a direct consequence of Peter’s choice not to do the right thing at a critical moment.

Clearly, the creators of Spiderman (Or is it “Spider Man"? I can never keep it straight) understood the value of real, meaningful consequences in raising the drama of any story, and in getting readers to be emotionally invested in the story.

This plays into sympathy for characters too. We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them. That lies at the heart of creating believable and evocative conflicts for a character to face and overcome.

This is a truly excellent point. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll expand that into a follow-on post to this one, probably early next week. Stay tuned, everybody!

Posted by Elizabeth Kaylene on March 23, 2010 18:51 UTC

I think the best way to accomplish having a sympathetic hero is to ask ourselves how we would feel if we were in her/his situation. As long as we can make it believable to our readers, we’re good! For example, a character’s mother might be dying. Maybe that character doesn’t care. We have to give a solid reason as to why s/he doesn’t care; his mother beat him and deprived him of food throughout his childhood, and as soon as he was old enough to get out on his own, he did and never looked back.

We have to provide backstory early enough so that this reaction makes sense. You can’t just have him get the call that his mother died and have him be like, “Great. Now, who wants a sandwich?” It won’t make sense. But if we already know why he doesn’t care, we can sympathize and understand his response.

Posted by Jason Black on March 23, 2010 22:11 UTC

We have to provide backstory early enough so that this reaction makes sense. You can’t just have him get the call that his mother died and have him be like, “Great. Now, who wants a sandwich?” It won’t make sense.

I think you’re half right, there. You’re absolutely right that if it doesn’t make sense to the reader, then you’ve got a problem. That’s spot-on.

Where I disagree is with the conclusion that backstory is necessarily the way to solve this.

When well delivered, backstory can indeed do the job, but there are other ways to make it make sense to the reader. The great problem with backstory is that it destroys mystery. Click the backstory link in the tag cloud to find some earlier articles I’ve written about the right way and wrong way to use backstory; they talk about this in much greater detail. Suffice it to say that most writers deliver too much backstory, and much too soon.

Any emotional reaction—even a non-reaction—is fine so long as readers can believe it. That is, so long as it fits with the reader’s conceptions about the character up to that point. There are doubtless an infinite number of ways to convey “the dude doesn’t care about his mom” to the reader without getting into the backstory. That is, without destroying the mystery.

Ideally, what you want is a way to make the reaction make sense while simultaneously creating mystery. So instead of going back a few chapters to find places where you can sprinkle some backstory in, why not instead show that lack of filial love in a different context?

You could have it be his birthday. He comes home and the message light is blinking on his machine. He presses the button to listen. The first message is a friend calling with a birthday wish, and he listens to it. The second one is a telemarketer. He presses delete. The third one starts out “Hi honey, it’s your mom—” and he presses delete again.

Now, there’s a lot of ways to interpret that. You can probably think of several, one of which being that he doesn’t care about his mom. But in the scene, you leave it unresolved. By doing so, you created an un-opened door in the reader’s mind, behind which is the answer to the mystery “what’s up with this dude and his mom?”

The reader is free to speculate—and will do so. This question will hang around, helping propel the reader forward through the story looking for the answer. Eventually, they’ll reach the scene where he gets the call that his mom has died unexpectedly. Now when he says to the caller “Oh, ok. Thanks for letting me know,” and hangs up, we can believe it.

We still don’t know why he feels this way towards his mother, but because that unopened door is present, we believe it. You haven’t given us any backstory to explain it, but you have established the fact of it in such a way that when we see it in this new (and more important) context, it makes sense.

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