Writing Sympathetic Characters

Have you ever stopped reading a novel because you didn’t like or weren’t interested in the characters or you couldn’t muster enough caring about them to stick with them for 300 pages? Here are a few tips to try to keep this reaction from happening to your readers:

1. Portray your character as a true victim. Do use caution, so you don’t venture into melodrama. People like rooting for the underdog, so opening with your character being in a terrible situation beyond her control will not only make the character sympathetic, but will engage the reader so she wonders how this character will overcome her condition. For example, the character:

— is an orphan.

— is a widow.

— has lost everyone she cares about.

— has lost everything that offers her security.

— is physically scarred.

2. The character lives in a fantasy; but for reasons beyond her control, the illusion will be demolished. Tension happens because the reader sees that there is something wrong underneath the façade. This is a typical setup for science fiction.

Note that the sympathetic characters here are not to blame for their situation. However, the reader is interested in seeing how the character overcomes. There is chance for growth; and the reader asks, “What would I do if this happened to me?” The skilled author can explore all sorts of themes with the sympathetic character, making for a fulfilling book to write and a satisfying book to read.

Your turn:

Who is your favorite fictional character? Why?

Who is the most sympathetic character you’ve encountered?

What tips did I miss?


9 Responses to Writing Sympathetic Characters

  1. tuviapollack October 10, 2019 at 3:18 am #

    Oh, wow… good! This enforces my notion that my characters are likeable. Thanks! I have a single father and a daughter who are separated in the first chapter, each one thinking that the other one is dead. And another character that has overcome huge difficulties in his past, but now live a good life and just got married. But the war is getting closer to their city, and they’re not really sure how that will pan out…

  2. Darlene L. Turner October 10, 2019 at 5:23 am #

    Love this, Tamela. It’s so important to make our characters sympathetic. I started watching season 2 of a show and the main character started to annoy me. Making stupid mistakes, etc. I finally stopped watching it. Perfect example of making a character likeable. It will hold the reader and put them into the story. Thanks for this.

  3. Kari Trumbo October 10, 2019 at 5:31 am #

    I think you’re absolutely right, the character has to have a deep hurt that a reader can relate to in some way, but it’s also important to avoid the information overload. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to put every reason the character is scarred in the first chapter in an effort to make them sympathetic, However, no reader wants to feel like the character’s therapist. The character actually becomes unlikable then. Thank you for the tips!

  4. Dianne Miley October 10, 2019 at 5:44 am #

    A favorite is Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) in The Fugitive.
    Another tip: Make your character likeable for readers to sympathize. No whining crybabies, no evil vigilantes.

  5. Hannah Cook October 10, 2019 at 5:58 am #

    While I don’t have any particular favorite character, Morgan L. Busse’s MC touched me. I connected with her emotion stuffing. The author nailed it.

    Great points! Characters are everything!

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 10, 2019 at 6:10 am #

    Every character that is written
    must have some kind of flaw.
    It may be obvious, or hidden,
    but we’re all sinners under Law.
    It may just be poor judgement,
    or temptation to excess,
    but every tale is testament
    to a self-made mess.
    That fate which we all must face
    be we fictional or real
    is the burning need for saving Grace
    by which we all can heal.
    It’s the healing which seals every story
    with God’s love and in His glory.

  7. claire o'sullivan October 10, 2019 at 11:12 am #

    Excellent reminder. Karen Kingsbury’s character in the If I Run’ series (can’t off the top of my head remember the MCs name) is an excellent character. Perhaps we would not run, but we can certainly relate to her situation of hopelessness at times, their desire for justice.

    Those characters facing obstacles despite their vulnerability are the ones I prefer (I have put down a lot of novels — even from famous authors because their MCs are stick-like).

    1. That’s my goal, to bring my readers to love my MC and fall to their knees when ‘really bad things’ happen. 2. Help those who struggle with faith to understand and relate to those who backslide or don’t get it, ie the Gospel and 3. hope and pray they remember the characters long after they read.

  8. Mary Kay Moody October 10, 2019 at 12:41 pm #

    Simple but powerful truth, Tamera. One of my favorite characters is Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables. Certainly a victim to begin with, but we get to see such a noble heart. Most of Laura Frantz’s MC’s strike me that way too.

  9. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 11, 2019 at 12:56 pm #

    HI Tamela:
    I loved Downton Abbey but actually stopped watching the show for months when Anna got raped. It broke my heart. I was reading a Nicholas Sparks novel once, where he told the story sympathetic to a man who was getting a divorce. I put the book down and haven’t picked up another Sparks novel since. The character and the situation made me mad.
    As far as a character I really like….humm.. that would be Susan Prescott in Victoria Susan. She has so much going against her and it looks really bad for her very survival, until….

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