Creating Sympathy for Characters
By Rukhsana Khan
Sympathetic characters are the crux of a
good story and involve a lot more than I’ll be dealing with in this
In all the writing exercises I’ve read, one of the biggest problems I’ve
encountered is when the character is too nice, or too mean. If they’re
too nice, too perfect, then it’s hard for the reader to identify with
them because they’re not realistic. If they’re too mean, then why should
the reader care what happens to him?
For a while, especially in movies, we were given the anti-hero. The guy
with no redeeming qualities, who we were still supposed to root for.
Perhaps Hollywood was jaded and believed we, the public, were too
cynical to believe a good hero. Although the anti-hero was bad, at least
he wasn’t quite as bad as the villain. And at least the anti-hero knew
how to blast his enemy to smithereens. Two movies that illustrate my
point are The Good, The Bad and the Ugly with Clint Eastwood, and The
Last American Boy Scout with Bruce Willis. The first movie Good Bad, and
Ugly works, while Last American Boy Scout doesn’t. (If you don’t
remember The Last American Boy Scout, don’t be alarmed. It was a huge
flop. But sometimes you can learn more from a flop than from a movie
In the Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood is a rather selfish
gunslinger. But compared to what he’s up against, our sympathies
automatically rest on him because at least he’s bad with style and he’s
cute. In some ways the Ugly guy was the most important character. He’s
the perfect foil and shows old Clint in a good light. In fact, I
wouldn’t be surprised if Ugly has more dialogue than Clint, but it’s
Clint who steals the show. And yet, in some of the Dirty Harry movies,
Clint Eastwood also played an anti-hero, a fairly nasty cop who’s
solving crimes that reflect some of his own misdeeds. While Clint was
not as sympathetic a character in those Dirty Harry movies as he was in
the spaghetti westerns, he still conveyed enough vulnerability to hold
our sympathies. But I doubt that the Dirty Harry movies are as well-
loved as the spaghetti westerns that made him famous.
In The Last American Boy Scout, Bruce Willis plays such an unsympathetic
character, that you’re almost tempted to root for the villain. The
character he plays has no redeeming qualities except for the fact that
he’s on the ‘good’ side. I think this film was made at the height of
Hollywood cynicism. And yet in the well-loved Die Hard, where his
character is only slightly less nasty, there is something lovable about
him. I think the difference is that in Die Hard we see the vulnerability
of this hard-nosed New York cop, whereas in The Last American Boy Scout,
we’re supposed to ‘ooh and aaah’ over the pyrotechnics. I’ve always
loved the Die Hard movies because in addition to great plot, they have a
strong character. And his quirkiness is endearing. I’ll always remember
when Bruce is crawling through a ventilation shaft trying to get away
from the bad guys and he stops for a moment in a wise-guy mode, flicks
his lighter and says, "Come to the coast, relax, it’ll be fun!" or words
to that effect. It catches the viewer off guard because it’s unexpected,
and yet perfectly logical that he would be sarcastic about the
invitation that got him out there and into all that trouble.
The other thing about The Good the Bad and the Ugly and the Die Hard
flicks is the willingness of the writers to make things difficult for
the protagonist. Both Clint and Bruce suffer setbacks. Clint almost dies
of thirst at the hands of Ugly. Bruce cuts his feet with glass and is
constantly getting beaten down.
What makes us admire these guys is their perseverance when most of us
would long ago have called it quits.
Which brings me to the way to make your character sympathetic. I think
the primary way to create sympathy is to pour on the troubles. Really be
ruthless. Make him/her suffer. And then when things get really bad, up
the ante and make them worse. To be a good writer you almost need a
sadistic and masochistic streak in you.
Sadistic in that you’re deliberately making things tough on your
protagonist, masochistic because in some ways, you are your protagonist,
and you suffer along with him.
And through it all, your character may think of quitting, may even
seriously consider it, but never ever allow them to do so.
Nor should you ease off on the pressure, or start feeling sorry for your
protagonist. (I call it ‘not pulling any punches’. In that you’re like a
boxer in the ring, and each blow you give your protagonist has to have
your full force behind it. Otherwise, the reader will sense that you’re
holding back.) Don’t dare let up until the turning point or climax. Once
the story has climaxed, then you can start winding things down, though I
suggest you still leave enough things unresolved and enough tension as
to keep the reader’s interest. I accomplished this in my novel, Dahling
if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile by leaving the reader
wondering about a major character’s fate. On the second last page, the
reader finds out, and shortly after I wrapped up the book.
My book, The Roses in My Carpets, is what I would consider an example of
not pulling any punches. As a result it’s been called ‘sombre’ and even
‘bleak’ in some reviews.
When I workshop that story among school kids, I point out story
structure; the whole beginning, middle and end scenario that we’ve all
become so familiar with.
The beginning of a story requires three elements: problem, characters
and setting. I ask the children what needs to happen in the middle of
the story. The kids give various answers, but rarely do they say what I
have learned needs to happen in the middle of the story. In the middle
of a good story, the problem always has to get worse. And if the problem
doesn’t get worse, it’s not a good story. And of course, in the end, the
problem has to get solved. I can’t emphasize the importance of this
enough, in terms of story structure.
My story The Roses in My Carpets is about my Afghani refugee foster
child. The beginning takes almost half the book before you find out what
the problems really are (it’s a more complex story in that there are at
least two problems in the story).
When I finished writing Roses, I actually felt sorry for my protagonist.
He’s poor, every night he has nightmares, his father died, he feels
burdened by his feelings of responsibility for his mother and sister,
and he’s ashamed for taking help through a sponsor’s money. If that
weren’t bad enough, his sister gets hit by a truck and both her legs are
broken. (In writing the story, I deliberately used a matter of fact
style, and understated the tragedy. That prevented the story from
So his problems definitely get worse in the middle. But ironically, both
of the problems in the story, are resolved partly due to the accident.
And he has a stoicism that keeps the story from getting melodramatic.
When I ask kids what they think the problems in the story are they
usually say the fact that he’s poor, that his father died, that he hates
school. They seldom choose the real problems of the story. They forget
the problems have to get solved at the end. And these aspects they’ve
pointed out, are actually part of the setting, not the problems I’ve
dealt with in the story.
In the story, the problems I’ve dealt with are the nightmares and his
feelings toward sponsorship. This boy, even though he’s so poor, doesn’t
want to take help. That’s the major problem in the story. And it’s what
makes him a sympathetic character, in my opinion. Because we can all
relate to and admire that kind of courage.
Another way to make your character sympathetic is that no matter how
difficult things get, avoid letting them whine or complain. There’s
nothing less attractive than a whiny protagonist. If you choose that as
the problem the protagonist has to overcome, you’re going to have to
counter that by endowing your protagonist with a lot of sympathetic
characteristics in order to overcome the turn off of being whiny.
You may say that this isn’t being realistic. That there’s nothing more
natural than for kids to start whining when things get tough, and you’re
right. Kids whine all the time. But remember that books aren’t reality,
just as dialogue isn’t real speech. And you can’t get away with as much
in books as you can in real life. Just as dialogue should be crisp and
to the point whereas real speech is full of embellishments that distract
from the point the person is making, your protagonist should be free of
a whiny attitude in order to be perceived as sympathetic.
So to summarize, in order to make a character sympathetic, turn on the
pressure, make things very difficult for them, and don’t let them
complain or give up under any circumstance.
article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or
produced without her express written permission.