Beyond the Hook: Writing Sympathetic Characters

The first page may be promising. The opening chapters may be engrossing. But a reader might still abandon your book if it doesn’t deliver. How can you keep your readers going?

Sympathetic Characters

Some writers are talented in creating sympathetic characters from page one. Perhaps Page one occurs during a fire, when the characters have lost everything. Or the heroine has been abandoned by a husband/boyfriend/father/mother. Or she’s being shunned for an event that wasn’t her fault. These are just a few examples of how to get your reader to say, “Oh, wow! How will the characters survive?” or, “Oh, no! What would I do if the same thing happened to me?”

Or the lead may be something as simple yet complex as, “I don’t want to marry this awful man but yet I must!”

If the reader can relate to and sympathize with the characters quickly, and if the reader is curious about the characters, those elements will keep pages turning.

What Might Change?

A couple of developments will make me turn against sympathetic characters so I might abandon a book:

  • The characters become dull. They don’t have enough to do, or what they are doing is boring, and they are not making progress.
  • The characters deserve what they got, and are no longer sympathetic. If a writer uses this technique, the novel changes course. At this point, the characters are antiheroes. The book will need to keep readers going out of curiosity because they want to see how the plot culminates. Another technique is to move the object of sympathy to a new character, usually the victim of the formerly sympathetic protagonist. Either development is risky and must be executed with skill to keep readers engaged.
  • The book becomes too melodramatic. The rule is to throw everything you can at your characters and show how they get themselves out of their mess. This works as long as the story doesn’t go over the top into camp – unless the reader enters the book knowing this is the story’s aim.
  • The story loses credibility. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” is a cliché because it’s true. Any member of a prayer group knows that some people undergo an unbelievable number of tragic events in quick succession. But if the sequence of events isn’t believable in a book, readers will bail.

Stay tuned for other ways to keep readers hooked.

Your turn:

Who was the most sympathetic character you’ve encountered in a book?

Who was the most boring?

Who was the most unforgettable?

15 Responses to Beyond the Hook: Writing Sympathetic Characters

  1. Melissa Ferguson October 26, 2017 at 4:53 am #

    I’m reading Christmas at Carnton by Tamera Alexander and I have such sympathy for the main character: a newly widowed, 7-month-pregnant mother who loses her job and home during the Civil War. The slew of unfortunate incidents happen in the first few chapters and yet Alexander works the scenes masterfully, emphasizing quickly and powerfully the pain and strength of the main character before taking an optimistic turn.
    But, I do wonder of late about this use of sympathy in writing. What about the romantic comedy? What about the book that seeks to have a more lighthearted start? Sympathy is such a strong emotion and a great way to hook readers, but do you know of great books that hook readers just as strongly with humor or wit without seeming insignificant?

  2. Julie Christian October 26, 2017 at 5:42 am #

    I recently finished reading House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. My husband was giggling in the corner of our bedroom as I approached the end because I kept saying out loud, “Oh, Lily…Oh, Lily.” It was as if by my utterances, I could change the course of the main character, Lily Bart. Wharton created a character who couldn’t help but extract sympathy from me. In fact, even in writing this comment, I am transported back to those feelings.

    My husband and I were both so impressed by this book that we were compelled to read another book by Wharton, Age of Innocence. We were both so surprised to have almost no feelings of sympathy for the main character in that book.

    I think my favorite type of characters are the ones who are written as broken and human, but forgivable. Like all of us. I love authors who can do that for even the most despicable characters in their books.

  3. Loretta Eidson October 26, 2017 at 6:10 am #

    In the novel Cruel Messenger by Timothy Ayers, my sympathetic character was Detective Jude Cameron, and the most unforgettable character is his mom, Edna. I loved that in her state of Alzheimer’s King Solomon visited her and gave her tidbits of wisdom for Jude during his investigation.

  4. Brennan S McPherson October 26, 2017 at 6:44 am #

    Boy, not sure I could identify a “most sympathetic character” among books I’ve read. That’s a hard one. But I do think that sometimes “anti-heroes” can be very sympathetic. I even think some of the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever read would be classified as anti-heroes. But you do have to show the pain that pushes them to their mistakes in much more visceral detail to make it believable. And your readership has to identify with that pain for it to allow them to connect with the character. Risky business. . .

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 26, 2017 at 7:01 am #

    Most sympathetic – without a doubt Donald Shimoda, the Reluctant Messiah of Richard Bach’s “Illusions”. He could have become a human version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but Bach invested him with a pathos that is so true to life…one can see, in Shimoda, the fun Jesus must have had with being able to do miracles, and the infinite frustration He had on realizing that just as many people watch NASCAR to see the crashes, many people followed Him to see the wonders.

    Most boring is an archetype, the self-consciously-angst-ridden-young-man, from Goethe’s Werther to Suzanne Collins’ Gale in the Hunger Games series. The less I see of them, the happier I am; they’re an embarrassment, perhaps because every male adolescent goes through that stage!

    One thing I’ve never understood is the creation of the character-you-love-to-hate; I’ve never enjoyed hating, and while I’ve heard that there is something of a thrill in letting base and primal urges have their literary rein, I just don’t see it. Can anyone enlighten me?

  6. Melissa Henderson October 26, 2017 at 7:12 am #

    Thank you for this great info. I am studying my main characters and evaluating how to make them more interesting and memorable. 🙂

  7. Carol Ashby October 26, 2017 at 7:19 am #

    I don’t want to identify a boring character by name so I won’t do damage to the author. I will comment on a broad problem. I realize it’s probably due to the short length of the genre, but I find the characters in many novellas to be 2-d cardboard instead of 3-d flesh and blood with complex motivations and surprising yet believable responses. That’s why I prefer to read longer novels.

    I used to read novella collections on camping trips because I could finish a story in a single night with a flashlight. I still remember one where the overweight sister went on the honeymoon cruise to photograph it for her trim, pretty sister, and the suave, rich, handsome best man fell for her because she was a wonderful person. She was 3-d and the sort of person anyone would love as a friend….or a wife.

  8. Robin E. Mason October 26, 2017 at 8:46 am #

    can’t say who was the most sympathetic, but i just read The Sorrow Stone by J.A. McLachlan. Celeste was, obviously, a most sympathetic character, tormented and memory lapses. but the peddler garnered my sympathies, too. life was not pretty in the 12th century and he did what he felt he had to do to survive and provide for his family.
    excellent story, stellar author!!

  9. Karen Cogan October 26, 2017 at 3:12 pm #

    For me, Eleanor from Sense and Sensibility was a sympathetic character.

    • Carol Ashby October 26, 2017 at 5:18 pm #

      Yes! I agree, Karen. Not just sympathetic, but noble.

  10. Tamela Hancock Murray October 27, 2017 at 5:14 am #

    I love these comments and suggestions, everyone! I just might visit and/or revisit some of these titles!

  11. Linda Riggs Mayfield October 27, 2017 at 8:52 pm #

    Christian author Amanda Barber’s heroine in The Pursuit of Elizabeth Millhouse encountered such an unrelenting series of negative events, if a less deft writer had included so many, the book would probably have been laid aside as unrealistically dramatic or downright depressing. The book’s plot, however, contained a thread from beginning to end–the 19th century English poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson, in which God uses whatever means necessary to reach us. So each misfortune, misstep, and tragedy could be seen as grace in pursuit of Elizabeth, and the reader, knowing the outcome of grace, aches in sympathy with the struggling heroine. I read it shortly after its publication back in 2012, but it still immediately came to mind in response to your question, Tamela. Powerful writing.

  12. Edward Lane November 1, 2017 at 10:46 am #

    I recently read Always Watching by Lynette Eason. Wade Savage was a sympathetic character as was Olivia Edwards. Wade has had relationship issues in the past which are weaved in with current Mysteries.

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    […] are key to reader engagement. Tamela Hancock Murray shows how writing sympathetic characters hooks your reader, Mary Kole discusses interiority and why it matters, Gray Marie shares why she […]

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