Flaws and Sympathy

Last week, I wrote a post about complex characters and how to write them.

Basically I think it comes down to showing more than one side of a personality, the good, the bad and the ugly.

It’s amazing how often new writers are scared of doing this. I was too. When I started writing my fantasy epic, I was honestly terrified of my decision to write complex characters. After all, fantasy is traditionally the land of noble souls, so I was worried that writing something that veers of far from that, I’d alienate my readers.

And you know, it didn’t.

In fact, I ended up loving all of my characters, although two of them are capable of being complete bastards. More importantly, the people who’ve read my novel so far do too.

There are more than one reason for this, but today I want to focus on one.


A reader is drawn into a story because of sympathy for the character leading them through it. There are a variety of ways to win sympathy for your character. If you’re interested, I suggest you see Moody’s series on it.

All of Mood’s suggestions are valid. To summarize the series to date:
1) Put them in danger.
2) Make them suffer.
3) Strength of character
4) Have the character be an outcast.

I agree, but there’s another aspect to emotional attachment between a reader and a character. Emotion. Specifically: the character’s emotions.

You see, putting characters through the grinder isn’t enough. In fact, it can be a very risky thing to do if it’s not coming organically out of the story.

Aside: “organic” as I’m using it now applies to both plotters and pantsers. There are things that happen in a story because it makes sense within the story (organic). Or things happen because the authors need them for the story to make sense. (not-organic)

The risk comes from the fact that readers immediately pick up on non-organic events. (More on these later.) So instead of sympathy, just adding the four factors above will have readers rolling their eyes at best.

Instead, I propose to writers, the emotions themselves are what make the connection. A characters emotions make a reader’s move in resonance. (I.E. they strike a chord.) Complexity of emotion along with complexity of character will move the reader completely. That’s why characters can be terrible personalities, but still loved.

In every situation. What is the character feeling? Loss? Fear? Dread? Hope? Love? Anger? Resentment? The options go on and on. How the character reacts emotionally will give the reader something to hold on to.

For an example of what I mean, look at Katniss from the Hunger Games Trilogy. She’s mean, cynical, stubborn and out for her own interests above those of others. Not exactly likable noble character material. Yet, she kept millions of readers interested through three books. Why? Because below everything she says and does, she has a depth of emotion that IΒ hazardΒ to say has been unrivaled by her fictional contemporaries. With all her flaws, she deeply loves her sister, which is why she basically agrees to go to killing fields instead of her. That love is what keeps her going in the killing fields despite the terror and all the other mixed emotions that go with it. I personally couldn’t care less about a character named Katniss about to die. I care about a fictional person who did something completely against her personality traits because her love for her sister over-rode everything else. My suspicion is, I’m not alone.

So to evoke sympathy, let the reader see what’s going on with a character, even when it’s only glimpses. Don’t only make them suffer and go on a murderous rampage. Have them howling in pain first. And for heaven’s sake, motivate the pain by love.

Letting the reader see hurt and love and doubt, gives him or her a hold they won’t release until the end.

If you manage to do those right, fitting with your character, all those dirty tricks needed for creating sympathy come out on their own.

How do you go about evoking sympathy for your characters?

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46 thoughts on “Flaws and Sympathy

  1. I think to evoke sympathy the reader has to feel like they could be in their shoes – so they can't be too perfect or too horrid. One thing I learned in a workshop that works too is: have your character want something really badly. Keep them from getting it. Then when it seems like they might get it, keep them from getting it – again. It's that “make him suffer, then make him suffer some more” idea I guess. And yes – motivated by love is definitely key, I think!

  2. Most excellent advice! It's so important to be able to connect to our characters in some way. Strife is definitely one of those ways–as adveristy is something we all face in life.

  3. I have a character in my book, who is one of my favorites even though he's minor and completely evil (he's a tiny construct made to look like a skeleton, and when he screams his voice actually fills a room. Haha). Most of the time I'm writing him, his broiling emotions are what comes through strongest.

    I need to put more emotion into the main characters, I think…

  4. I liked flawed characters. I like imperfections because that's real and that's what people connect to.

    Whether I've been successful in writing characters to which people will relate or sympathize remains to be seen, but I strive to do it.

  5. Nuance, relatability, and situations evoking sympathy and emotions are very important. Sometimes a character isn't the most likable or moral, but we as readers come to love them and cheer for them because they're going through so much, and we understand what's driving them.

  6. Everyone character is multi-faceted. Katniss is self-interested, but she looks out weaker people. She cared for the character Rue, even though they were not related. That's what made her so likable, I think.


  7. I have lots of characters, all multifaceted and everyone likes them. Of course, there are the ones they don't like or liked in the beginning and now hate. So I think I have done a decent job. I put my characters through some tough stuff and they don't always come out smelling like roses but they do persevere.

  8. …maybe I'm in the minority here, but I hated Katniss. She's the reason I wanted to throw The Hunger Games against the wall and never read any more of the series. I wanted her to die because she was annoying and stereotypical, especially concerning her little sister.

    I think Huckleberry Finn and Snape from Harry Potter are better complex characters.

  9. Great advice Misha. I'm just launching into creating a real baddy in my WIP, and I shall consider him from a different perspective now. (Perhaps him Mummy threw away his blankie too soon… or not. More work obviously needed on this one!)
    Digging Deep!
    ~Just Jill

  10. I think a lot of it is showing how characters overcome their flaws once they're aware of them. Characters who don't change are annoying; the ones that do are the ones we identify with and develop sympathy for.

  11. I don't know if I consciously try to evoke sympathy for my characters when I write. But I try to put them in situations where they can experience things (e.g. angst, being lost) that perhaps readers can relate to.

  12. Great post, and love your analysis of Katniss. Well put! I certainly found her less than likeable and you've given a good explanation as to why she's nonetheless an engaging character.

  13. I know what you mean. I seriously considered scaling back with my one main character, but ended up trying my CPs with him being in his unlikeable glory. Turns out he was fine just as he was.

  14. You make a good point, although I tend to think it's more a case of people being able to see that they'd do the same thing in the same situation with the same background.

    So it's important to show the situation and the backstory in a way that helps the story.

  15. Definitely, as long as strife is inherent to the story or characterization. Nothing is more annoying than a writer putting strife into a novel without regard for how easily it could be solved (but isn't).

  16. I thought about them as examples, but the thing with them is that they're pretty much universally likable and I wanted to show how that's not a necessity when you're looking to write a sympathetic character. πŸ™‚

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