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?

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