Focus on Craft: How to Create Sympathetic Characters

2:47 pm - by anitamumm


Is it just me or is time accelerating? If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, congratulations! You’re just about to hit a milestone: the end of Week 1. Which means you’re feeling either euphoric, or scared out of your pants. Today I’m reaching into the archive for a topic that’s important at every stage of novel writing: creating characters your readers will want to spend 50,000+ words with. Whether you’re still in the early stages or polishing your ending, it’s worth stepping back to gauge whether your main characters are pulling their weight around here.


“I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.
” – Stephen King

How’s that for an awesome quote? I thought it would be perfect to kick off a new series where I take a quote or piece of advice from a famous author and talk about ways to apply it to your writing.

So let’s talk about sympathy.

Stephen King is hitting upon one of the most important skills you can have as a writer—the ability to create an emotional bond between your readers and your characters. Without that, it won’t make much difference what happens when the “monsters” come out. And by the way, this is vital not only in fiction, but memoir and other forms of creative nonfiction as well. Ever come across a first-person essay or memoir that made you say, “Give me a break! This guy/gal is way too arrogant”? You can substitute shallow, close-minded, or otherwise unlikeable. . . the point is, you probably dropped that book before the plot even took off.

So how do you go about making a character sympathetic? Here are a few examples:

Stir in some complexity. One of the biggest turn-offs in fiction is a flat character. In real life, people are multi-faceted. What makes people interesting is that we rarely can predict exactly how they’ll behave in a particular situation, and that’s because we all have so many layers to our personalities. The best writers know how to build that same complexity into their characters. On one hand, you want your readers to feel like they know your character intimately, like they can count on him in some way. But if he’s too one-dimensional, we’ll have the feeling that we can predict his every move, and that means you’ve taken that trust-building too far. Creating complexity is a big topic and I’ll go into it further in an upcoming post, but to start, try thinking about how you behave differently with some of the people you’re closest to in your life. Who are you with your spouse? With your parents? Your boss? There’s only one you, but you probably have a slightly different persona or demeanor with each of these people. How can you play that up in your writing? The more real your characters feel, the more likely your readers will care about them.

Give the character a (forgivable) flaw. You’ve probably heard this before: a character who is too perfect can be as problematic as one who is unredeemable. Why? Because it’s just not realistic. How boring would Indiana Jones have been without his exasperating stubbornness? And would women and girls the world over have fallen for Edward without the brooding (but not sullen) or self-sacrificing (but not masochistic) sides of his personality? A well-placed flaw makes a character easier to identify with (“That’s something I’d do—I’m pretty headstrong, too.”) And it can make us admire him even more if he’s able to overcome it. Just be careful not to overdo the flaw, or you could end up with the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Put the character in a painful situation. You don’t literally have to turn monsters loose, à-la-Stephen King. In literary fiction, readers like to see how characters deal with the kind of thing that could happen (or perhaps is happening) in their lives: caring for an aging parent, surviving a divorce or infidelity from a partner, a betrayal of some kind from a son or daughter. In sci fi or fantasy, it could mean a choice between family and country/kingdom, or between honor and personal happiness. But regardless of the genre, the situation has to resonate with the reader—meaning on some level she has to recognize the character’s pain or believe she or someone she knows could experience it. You’re not likely to have to battle orcs or evil Druids to save your homeland, but you probably know someone who has served in the military and been sent overseas. Or maybe you’ve had to move away from your home and family—against your wishes—to take a job. A difficult situation makes our hearts go out to the character and creates underlying tension: will he make the noble choice we hope he will? Especially with that flaw we’ve started to notice?


Best wishes as you whip those protagonists into shape!