I have, from time to time, been accused of writing unsympathetic characters. The first was the kickass heroine of my first published contemporary action/adventure novel. The latest was the young, naive, sheltered heroine of my second in a quartet of period short stories.
The kickass heroine has absolutely zero in common with the naive, sheltered heroine except for one thing: As originally written, they were both convinced they were right and they acted that way, leaving in their wake a scattering of hurt secondary characters and frustrated critique partners and editors.
Fortunately, both heroines received sound critiques before being published, so I was able to rework their actions and reactions to make them more sympathetic. So what does “sympathetic” actually mean? How are we supposed to “make a character more sympathetic”?
Sympathy is “harmony of or agreement in feeling.” We feel sympathy because we can put ourselves in another’s person’s shoes. It’s why some of us might cry at the funeral of someone we don’t know, simply because our grieving friend is crying, or why we feel outrage when we hear of an injustice that reflects something in our own experience. It’s that commonality of feeling that brings us into alignment — or harmony — with another.
In the romance genre, very few of us intend to write a protagonist who is off-putting or annoying. If we want our readership to root for our protagonist, then she must have qualities that are in harmony with the readership’s. Here are some ideas:
Self-doubt. The #1 quality that an unsympathetic hero or heroine likely does not have. If the protagonist is running around knowing she’s right and confident that she’s got it all going on, the reader will have a very hard time feeling any sympathy whatsoever with her. And if she treats everyone around her as incompetent or stupid, no one will like her.
Vulnerability. Sometimes, protagonists are unsympathetic because they’re emotionally bulletproof. Nothing touches her. She has everything under control. When’s the last time any of us had everything under control? Right. So give her moments of vulnerability that show her softer side.
A flaw. Everyone is walking around with myriad blind spots, filters, and character defects. Fortunately, your protagonist needs only one. But the flaw should work against her as the turning points in the story mount up, giving her ample opportunity to be vulnerable and suffer self-doubt. Added bonus: the flaw might turn out to be her Achilles’ heel in the dark moment.
A secret. A secret differs from a flaw in that the flaw comes from within the protagonist’s character, while a secret comes from outside. It’s based in a poor decision or a necessary evil whose consequences — or fear of consequences — are brought to bear upon the protagonist. If the secret involves a vulnerability, or is littered with self-doubt, so much the better.
A [good, compassionate, self-sacrificing, generous] side. In the case of my latest heroine, her journey is precisely one of moving from believing that she’s right all the time to recognizing that her prejudices and filters are blinding her to the beauty and reality of the people in front of her. So I wanted her wake to be littered with annoyed and hurt people, because this was precisely her path. But the critique group pointed out that, while they could see that she’s heading for a terrible fall, they must like her on their way up the cliff. The answer for this poor heroine was to introduce more of her good qualities that tipped the scales from harridan to confused protagonist.
And finally, avoid over-the-top reactions. I’ve judged a lot of contest entries, and this is a common issue for new writers. The confusion seems to stem from a couple of (wrong) ideas: that an excitable character must necessarily make for great conflict, and that a protagonist sporting knee-jerk reactions to minor provocations indicates that the character is “a strong hero or heroine.” Well, no in both cases. Excitable characters almost invariably make for bickering, not conflict, and an overreacting protagonist yields someone the reader will think is just being an ass. (This isn’t necessarily true of the skilled author who knows exactly what she’s doing, but that’s not most of us, and I certainly don’t count myself among the few.)
A sympathetic character can wind her way into the readers’ heartstrings, but she must have qualities and characteristics that resonate with the audience — self-doubt or vulnerability, a flaw or a secret — or display a fundamental goodness, in whatever form or fashion, that proves she could very well be one of us.