PDA

View Full Version : Building Sympathetic Characters



Elaine Margarett
04-26-2008, 06:46 PM
MC needs help. How can I build sympathy for a character who is meant to be a bit offbeat? In addition to being a crime solver (it's a mystery series) she's working out the issues of her upbringing~raised in a series of communes; absent father, hippie, ditzy mother; craves privacy, yet is lonely; trust issues...yada yada yada. It's a mystery so the pacing needs to focus on the path that leads to the resolution, right? (IOW, the solving of the mystery.)

I've dropped in small nuggets of my character's background. I feel like I shouldn't spent too much time on letting the reader know these things about the MC because: 1) I don't want to slow the pacing and take too much focus off the mystery, and 2) I don't want to reveal too many layers of her character too soon as this will be a continuing thread in upcoming stories. So, I want to keep some mystery to the character as well.

Problem is, I've had feedback that she isn't sympathetic enough. I can soften her, but how? I don't like a lot of character introspection -- you know, where the character thinks about their life as the walk, or sip coffee or whatever. <g> That kind of stuff stinks of info dump.

I could insert it into dialog, but I don't see my character as the chatty type. And that can come accross as info dumping as well. (I've thought about doing dialog where she says one thing, but thinks another.)

I could write in scenes that would show this, (not sure, yet, how) but then I'm adding pages showing characterization and it's not furthering the mystery plot (although you could say it furthers the series).

I guess I'm asking where does the balance lie?

Help, please!

EM

Mr Flibble
04-26-2008, 08:19 PM
Problem is, I've had feedback that she isn't sympathetic enough. I can soften her, but how? I don't like a lot of character introspection -- you know, where the character thinks about their life as the walk, or sip coffee or whatever. <g> That kind of stuff stinks of info dump.

You don't have to have a shed load if instrospection. A good one line internal though 'Ohh that poor baby, with a mother like that' or some other show of sympathy or 'god this idiot reminds me of my dad' and show the idiot to be an idiot, will work.

It's a question of balance. A half page of instrospection = probably not great unless you're a wonderful writer. A few lines here and there = shape your character, show her heart to your readers, without slowing the pace. Show what really matters to her.

HourglassMemory
04-26-2008, 09:06 PM
Don't think that making them sympathetic is an easy issue. I have difficulty as well.
And it has to be deep.

You have to give them something they want to strive for. Not just a dramatic, sad back round. That, to me, never works.
You have to make that sad backround to be an event that hits an ideal of theirs, which she wants there to exist. (am I expressing myself correctly?)

Imagine that character is going up this mountain, Ala Sam and Frodo in the final moments of Return of the King.
What would be on the other side? What would make the character keep putting one arm in front of the other and crawl and crawl, with that flute music in the back round and tears in his eyes. The mountain here symbolizes all these little conflicts that get in the way of the character's strive to be some thing they want to be or have or do(to others).

Is it just wanting to be good to people? What does the character JUST want to do? that the characters knows is part of her, but things just keep throwing her back from getting to that place. What does she want to be to people? to herself? What is it in her that would make her face conflicts( go up mountains with falling rocks)?

Elaine Margarett
04-26-2008, 09:22 PM
A half page of instrospection = probably not great unless you're a wonderful writer. A few lines here and there = shape your character, show her heart to your readers, without slowing the pace. Show what really matters to her.

The thing is, I've done this. And I continue to do this as the story unfolds. But maybe I'm not doing it soon enough, i.e. the first chapter?

I know my character and I like her (mostly). The problem is having perfect strangers make a quick connection with her, and do it while setting up the foundation for the mystery.

Maybe I'm overthinking this. :-(

kuwisdelu
04-26-2008, 09:31 PM
I could write in scenes that would show this, (not sure, yet, how) but then I'm adding pages showing characterization and it's not furthering the mystery plot (although you could say it furthers the series).

You want to always keep the story progressing, not necessarily the plot. Your character is part of the story. Spending some scenes showing characterization is furthering the story. You don't always need to keep the plot rolling to keep the readers interested and on their toes. Your characters are just as important. Not all forward action means plot. Advancing your characters is just as important.

I say go with this.

Elaine Margarett
04-26-2008, 09:32 PM
Don't think that making them sympathetic is an easy issue. I have difficulty as well.
And it has to be deep.

You have to give them something they want to strive for. Not just a dramatic, sad back round. That, to me, never works.
You have to make that sad backround to be an event that hits an ideal of theirs, which she wants there to exist. (am I expressing myself correctly?)

)?

Hmmm. One of the issues she struggles with, along with her unconventional upbringing, is her lack of family. The story opens with her finding a suicide (she's a search and rescue k-9 handler). She could have the thought where she hopes he doesn't have a family who will miss him --. I dunno. Seems kind of...convenient ... weak? Or is it an opportunity to get the reader on her side?

Why, for me, is this writing stuff getting harder!!!! It was so much easier in the beginning (and a whole lot more fun).

:-(

kuwisdelu
04-26-2008, 09:39 PM
When you're learning something, things always get harder before they get easier. :/

HourglassMemory
04-26-2008, 09:46 PM
Hmmm. One of the issues she struggles with, along with her unconventional upbringing, is her lack of family. The story opens with her finding a suicide (she's a search and rescue k-9 handler). She could have the thought where she hopes he doesn't have a family who will miss him --. I dunno. Seems kind of...convenient ... weak? Or is it an opportunity to get the reader on her side?

Why, for me, is this writing stuff getting harder!!!! It was so much easier in the beginning (and a whole lot more fun).

:-(
Lol Don't let this throw you down!!!!
AAHH!!! What have I done!!!
It's coming up with the stuff that is the fun part.

Ok...lack of family. What would that make her want? Would she want to have a family of her own? Very likely right?
to have a husband whom she could like and just snuggle with and be friendly to. And then have a child. She just wants to have a child and raise it with that man that is very friendly with her and she doesn't mind spending her life with. And then she wants to see the kid grow and make friends. And she wants to just be friendly to the kid. She wants to be good and make her own family on her own nice little cosy corner.
BUT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Think of "Negative What if's".
What fi she can't her own little corner because of money issues. why money issues? Her job doesn't pay, yadda yadda yadda.
She wants to have a baby BUT, what if her mother disagrees for some strange reason? What if she finds out she can't have any kids not because of physical issues....but becasue she might not think she's capable of having the responsibility to take care of a human life?

Never make a Negative What If like this "She wants to have a baby...but what if she can't?"
Always elaborate more. Why can't she?

More. What if the man she just wants to be friendly to... is always too depressed....or is dating a girl she dislikes? What if the man dies? What if the man has things she doesn't like?


And this just came up from..."she didn't have a family".

then you have the mystery, but that's up to you.
this whole family stuff just makes her grow as a character...and on top of that she has to solve a mystery.

Elaine Margarett
04-26-2008, 09:57 PM
Lol Don't let this throw you down!!!!
AAHH!!! What have I done!!!
It's coming up with the stuff that is the fun part.

Ok...lack of family. What would that make her want? Would she want to have a family of her own? Very likely right?
.

The jury's still out over whether or not she wants kids, let alone a husband. <g> For one thing, she's young (early twenties). Another is she's had no experience with the traditional family unit of husband, wife and child. She didn't live in real house (as in a building) until she was eight. She's gone from communal living to living alone and guarding her privacy. Although she has no problem walking around naked and sex really isn't a big deal, more like a fun biological function.

So hey, what's not to love? LOL.

VGrossack
04-26-2008, 10:08 PM
We All Need Someone To Love: Creating Characters Readers Will Care About
Victoria Grossack
One of the ways to make sure that your readers keep turning the pages is to give them characters – especially main characters, also known as protagonists – whom they will care about. Now, this technique is not absolutely necessary for a successful novel. For example, in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, the author is very cynical about his main character. (I remember how shocked I was when I read it and realized how Thackeray felt. But I was only twelve, so this literary device was brand new to me.) However, for the most part, people will want to read about characters they love, with whom they identify, whom they want to emulate.

How can you make this happen? There are a number of ways that you can make your characters more interesting and sympathetic to your readers. Here are some of them:

Your readers identify with the main character.

One of the ways to make this happen is to give your main characters some of the same traits as your readers. These traits may be superficial, in that the characters are about the same age and the same sex, and so on – potentially very important, for example, in writing children’s stories, but in other situations as well. For example, when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she wanted – she needed – to gain the sympathy of white readers. So she made one of the characters, George, almost white in color, so that it would be absurd, even for many of the anti-abolitionists, to insist that he be forced to remain a slave on the basis of his race.

Your main character has a familiar outlook while the other characters don’t.
This is another way to have your readers identify with the main character, although it is less superficial. There are many ways in which this can occur. For example, if you are targeting Christian readers, you’re probably going to want to have some Christian characters. Another way is to put a character with whom we identify into an unreasonable or at least an unfamiliar surrounding. Although this may deal with current political / religious events – think of Betty Mahmoody’s book, Not without My Daughter - it can also be done by putting characters from today into periods in the past, such as time-travel books – consider the classic, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – or the more recent Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Or it can be done on an implicit basis, where a character with a familiar outlook is in a situation where the other characters have a less familiar outlook. For example, in The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel, a Cro-Magnon girl is adopted by a clan of Neanderthals; in Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross, young Joan does everything she can in order to learn to read and write. In these two last examples, the modern-day attitude that education for females is a good thing is something that is questioned severely by many of the other characters.

Your main character is a nice person.

If your main character is in the process of killing someone, or even in the process of doing something nasty, such as being rude toward another character in an inferior position, your readers may learn to dislike the main character. Now, this doesn’t mean that your readers will necessarily stop turning the pages.

How do you make your main character a nice person? Thinking of another person kindly; doing a charitable act for someone less fortunate; resisting the temptation to do something.

Your character is working for “the good guys.”
There are many situations in which “the good guys” are clearly defined – for example, the Allied side of World War II, or the police working to catch a particularly nasty criminal, such as a kidnapper or a murderer or part of the Mafia.

Actually, in these situations, it is not the “good guys” who are clearly defined but the “bad guys.” By having “bad guys” who are so clearly defined – and who are so categorically dreadful – you can introduce more shades of gray into your protagonists. Perhaps your protagonist is a prostitute, thief or even a drug dealer – but saves the day when it comes down to stopping one of the worst of the acts.

Your character is threatened.
If your characters are threatened, either in terms of life, limb, or property, the readers will tend to sympathize with them.

Your character is a situation that seems unfair.
Your character may not be allowed to study, or to go to the ball, or may be forced to wait upon her less beautiful (as well as spiteful) stepsisters, despite being more deserving (in the case of Cinderella, more beautiful both in body and character).

Your character is trying to do something worthwhile.
Perhaps your main character is trying to become a doctor, despite tremendous odds (Noah Gordon’s The Physician) or trying to save the city or even the planet from destruction. Because of the goals that are sympathetic, the character will also be sympathetic.

Your character has it harder than others.
There are characters who have it harder than others and who will therefore gain our sympathy. Some true life examples include Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life and Christy Brown’s My Left Foot (a man with cerebral palsy who was only able to control his left foot and learned, therefore to write – and thus communicate with his family – with that member). For a recent fictional example, consider the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, told in first person by Christopher John Francis Boone, a character who has autism, and thus has difficulty communicating with those around him. (This novel is also an example of a brilliant development of voice.)

Conclusion
Often more than one of these devices is used at a time, either because they overlap or because you have decided to use more than one. You will also notice that many of these devices are situational – not necessarily reflecting upon the innate qualities of the character, but in the setting and in the plot.

You may also consider these devices manipulative. Well, I agree; they are manipulative. But manipulating the reader is not necessarily a bad thing. When readers pick up your story or novel, they are agreeing to manipulated – but they want to be manipulated in such a way that they enjoy it.

Questions or comments on this article? Do you want to use it? You can e-mail me directly at Grossackva at Yahoo dot com. I also want to say that I really enjoyed all the responses that I received to my August 2006 column, “What Are They Thinking” – it’s nice to know what you are thinking. In particular, my thanks go to Mark Ratjens wrote to say that Tom Robbins wrote a book in second person called Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas and Tom Di Roma sent me a short story that he wrote in second person.

Until next time!

From http://www.coffeehouseforwriters.com/fictionfix/0610%20Grossack.html

IceCreamEmpress
04-27-2008, 07:59 PM
Victoria's really laid it out in an organized manner (as usual!)

I do think that first impressions are as important in fiction as they are in life. Your character's distinctive personality needs to come through in the first few pages. This is tough, because it's also important to get the plot moving right away, but it's absolutely essential.

So maybe she talks to her dog in ways that convey some of that?

BlueLucario
04-27-2008, 08:39 PM
Okay, If your characters seem too cool and confident, and they love the sense of thrill. Like a character would be willing to go swimming in a lake with piranhas, or go out shoplifting.
Would they still be likable? You said the characters should be nice people.

My main character loves a challenge, and she has that "do what I want" attitude. I think she plans on robbing a bank, without masking her identity and with an unloaded Glock pistol. Both to save her talking cat and just for the thrill. Would she still be likable?