By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)
Like people, characters make first impressions. Readers will either like or dislike a character immediately. It’s up to writers to sculpt their characters for a desired effect and control the reading experience for their audience. A lot of ways in which writers can make their characters likeable is through sympathy.
Sympathy helps readers get on the character’s side and understand the character’s behavior. The good thing about sympathy is that not every reader has to have the same experiences characters do in order to sympathize with them. Readers just have to be able to identify with the character’s emotion.
For instance, readers don’t need to experience having a deceased brother in order to feel sorry for the character’s brother dying. But if the writer has done a good job setting up the character, readers will be able to understand why the character suffers or even identify with a loss of their own.
Sometimes the character’s situation is already created, but the writer didn’t supply the emotion to follow. In developmental editing, I help writers identify those missed opportunities and pull that emotion out of the character—to make readers care.
If readers don’t care about the character, it doesn’t matter how exciting the plot is. This is well known, but you might be surprised by how many books are out there that are missing this key ingredient. Characters can come off heavy handed, obnoxious, and careless without sympathy.
Here's some ways writers can make their characters more sympathetic:
1. Feeling sad for the character
This is when readers can identify with something bad that’s happened in the character’s life—whether it’s sacrifice, suffering, or the anticipation of danger.
Readers can sympathize with all sorts of troubling experiences, like classmates snickering, a sibling who takes all the glory, being chased by a killer, etc. Although some of those experiences haven’t happened specifically to everyone, as readers we can understand embarrassment, discomfort, being overlooked, and fear.
Note: This tactic shouldn’t be overdone over the course of the book. Otherwise the character could appear too self-suffering, pessimistic, and could adopt too much of a “poor me” attitude.
2. Laughing with the character
This is when humor is used to soften readers and make characters likeable. And it takes the edge off of some of those humiliating experiences that can make you squirm, replacing some of it with that nodding, knowing smile.
For example, the main character’s mother exclaims over her daughter’s new breasts. Ahhh, puberty. The mother drags the main character shopping for those training bras, all the while tooting to the retail clerk that her daughter is growing so fast (and not just in height). It's embarrassing, but it's also funny.
Reader sympathize because we can all identify with embarrassment and dealing with our bodies changing.
And there’s nothing that wins readers over faster than a good laugh.
Note: It’s hard to overdo humor when it entertains readers so thoroughly, but readers also appreciate sincere moments. Sincere moments help balance the humorous side of things.
3. Defending the character
This is when an outside source antagonizes the character in some way, and assuming readers have a tender heart, they'll feel a little defensive. Most people get riled up over injustices.
This tactic can be used on a small or big scale—a bullying situation at school or fighting for environmental protection against power-hungry corporations. We like to root for the little guy, too.
Note: If the character doesn’t remain sympathetic, readers could start disagreeing with him and will be reluctant to continue rooting for him.
What all of these tactics have in common is creating a situation in which the character has an experience that readers can emotionally identify with. There’s a sense of “feeling sorry” for the character, even though the feeling is displayed through different mindsets and situations.
Lastly, it’s not only about making readers care, it’s making readers care right away (and over the course of the whole book). Readers are investing a lot of time in a book, but they could put it down if they start to dislike the main character. So why prolong the one thing that is going to keep them reading? :-) Let's give our characters sympathy, and readers will stick with them for the entire journey.