The Sympathetic Character

The Sympathetic Character

angry woman 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:

angry manSelf-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.

angry child
Photo credit: Mindaugas Danys

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.

6 thoughts on “The Sympathetic Character

  1. A tidbit I picked up, which can add an interesting dynamic to your character, is when their greatest flaw is also their greatest asset. A character that leaps to mind is Richard Cypher from Wizard’s First Rule , the first book in the epic fantasy series The Sword of Truth written by Terry Goodkind. Richard has anger issues, but paradoxically his righteous anger powers his sword.

    Great post! Loved it and it made me think.

    1. That’s a great point, Lorinda. I suspect flaws and secrets are most powerful when they have that paradoxical nature. I like to think of it as:


      character asset + fear = character defect

      So the protagonist’s journey is really one out of fear into becoming who he or she really is. And that’s a sympathetic journey, too.

  2. Kay:

    You’ve tapped into one of the biggest myths of writing fiction: Just because it’s true in “real life” doesn’t mean it’ll work in fiction.

    We all know people like your Ruth, and the Ruths in our real life are generally there either because we have no choice — a co-worker or a sister, or because we’ve known them long enough to see beneath/beyond/behind the annoying or unsympathetic character trait.

    The problem with putting a person like that into a story is that most people aren’t going to spend their reading time — those precious few minutes they’ve carved out of their real life to indulge in peeking into someone else’s world — hacking through bad behavior to find a kernel of something to root for, especially in our romance heroines.

    Part of the gig of being an author is finding a way to introduce your lead character in a way that will make the reader want to spend time with her, even if, in the beginning of her journey, she’s unknowingly off-putting.

    And the pay off when you get it right is so worth those frustrating critique sessions and re-writing marathons, because when you start with a character who’s so obviously got a comeuppance in her future, you don’t lose your readers and everyone gets to enjoy the fall and the glorious re-growth into a character we all love and remember forever.

    1. The good news is, I’ve rewritten Ruth considerably, so perhaps readers of this blog will be less likely avoid Ruth’s story when it’s on the shelves. 🙂

  3. As Ruth’s only champion, I want to reiterate that UNsympathetic characters definitely have a place on my shelf. One of the most memorable books I’ve ever read is about a young girl who lies about the sexual molestation of a high school teacher and causes him to loose his job, and pretty much derails his entire life. We meet her years later, and she’s still not likeable. But, by the end, I was rooting for her and years later STILL remember that book (Ain’t She Sweet?, by: Susan Elizabeth Phillips) The growth of an unsympathetic character is a journey that is meaningful and memorable.

    1. Thank you for being a champion, Terri! 🙂

      My main concern is that we all keep talking about my heroine as if she has ZERO redeeming qualities… And she doesn’t! Her primary issue is simply that she wants to be a good person but is confused about how to do that.

      I sincerely hope that readers of this blog don’t assume based on the comments that this particular story should be entirely avoided!

      As I mentioned before, with the edits and reworking of the story, Ruth has become, I hope, a more sympathetic character in the opening pages, for as we saw this past week as the group read the story’s end, she had come a very, very long way.

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