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.

Sympathy.

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 I hazard 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?

Before you go, please remember to vote for some awesome bloggers, and to check out my Word Master Challenge. Six more days left to enter. Have a great weekend! 

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