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?

Leave a Comment

Author Nuances

Writer and humorist Dave Barry wrote, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnic background, is that we all believe we are above-average drivers.” The same applies to artists and writers. Most feel they are pretty good at their craft. But success as …

Read More

Write Like Jazz

Years ago, I was helping a friend brainstorm and outline a book, and at some point in the course of our conversation about writing, I said, “Writing is like jazz.” Both of us were jazz aficionados, so the phrase was apt, and it stuck. He has reminded me of it …

Read More

Edgy Christian Fiction

In Christian fiction, how do we balance keeping the message strong/not watering it down while still wanting to reach readers beyond Christian bookstores or churches? Thank you Carrie for a great question. This has been an ongoing discussion ever since Christian Fiction became a significant part of the publishing landscape in …

Read More

Time to Play!

As I was considering what to write for this week’s blog, I realized I needed a break from all the seriousness of the last few weeks. Not that I don’t love the “conversations” and insights everyone has shared. But, at the core, I’m a golden-retriever kinda gal, and I gots …

Read More

Choosing Your Words Wisely, Part 2

Here are some of my all-time favorite jokes: To get to the other side. Hugh and only Hugh can stamp out florist friars. Silly Rabbi, kicks are for Trids! Oh, my baking yak! Minnie was called, but Chew was frozen. I better run this through again! Give me a couple …

Read More

Choosing Your Words Wisely, Part 1

There are a number of reasons for the apparent decrease in reading in the world, from attention-span changes brought on by reader’s addiction to various “screens” to climate change. But it might simply be a vocabulary problem. The first time this concept came to me was about 25 years ago …

Read More

Writing the Deeper Story

I realize this will probably date me, but I sincerely enjoyed a popular radio feature by Paul Harvey called, “The Rest of the Story.” I assume some reading this post today also remember it. For generations, the venerable radio commentator, who passed away in 2009 at the age of 90, …

Read More

Go Ahead: Take an Online Break

Wow, what great sites you all shared. Thanks so much for letting us in on your online breaks. So here are the places I like to go when I need a break. Some are great for just a few minutes, some give a nice long break. But they’re all great …

Read More