Writing Wednesdays: Creating Sympathetic Characters

A friend wrote to me with this question:

How do you make the character jump off the page? You know, make him someone memorable, someone you want to root for?

You make a character someone you want to root for by making them sympathetic. I used to have some trouble with this. I’d give my characters a bunch of problems, thinking I’d really show their transformation by the end, but they’d end up so pitiful that people just wanted to slap them silly.

Let me put it like this.  You know that friend? That one who always calls with a complaint, who blows everything out of proportion, who manufactures drama. You want to hang up on him because you’re sick of listening, and besides, this friend only calls you when he has a problem or wants you to help him move. Yeah. You don’t want your character to be that friend.

You want your character to be more like that other friend: the one who’s had bad stuff happen, who might have problems; but who is incredibly funny, or does a bunch of interesting stuff, or who drops everything to help you out. When that friend calls, you’re happy to listen to his problems because you love all the other stuff about him.  You want him to succeed! You want to help.

So give your characters obstacles to overcome, and some big old character flaws; but also give them redeeming qualities that make your reader want to keep taking those calls, so to speak.

Think of your favorite fictional character, and what you liked about the character, and didn’t like.  Let’s take Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables
(and I realize if your chromosomes are XY you probably haven’t read it, but she’s the first one that sprung to mind, so analyze your own if you want). She’s an orphan, lived in crappy foster homes where she was essentially slave labor, but she doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself and waiting for someone to psychoanalyze her into happiness. No, she’s still got an imagination, she’s spirited, and all she wants is to be adopted by someone. But she can be annoying, droning on forever; she’s impulsive and has a quick temper.  (She accidentally gives her friend wine, insults a prissy neighbor, and cracks a slate over her classmate’s head when he pisses her off).   And that makes you love her.

So, make your character:

  • Care about something important
  • Want to relate to other humans
  • Have interesting flaws and virtues

Then the reader will care whether or not the character overcomes his obstacles.

Published by Margaret Dilloway

Middle grade and women's fiction novelist. FIVE THINGS ABOUT AVA ANDREWS, (Balzer + Bray 2020); SUMMER OF A THOUSAND PIES. MOMOTARO: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters (Disney Hyperion); TALE OF THE WARRIOR GEISHA and SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, out now from Putnam Books. HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE was a finalist for the John Gardner fiction award. THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS is the 2013 Literary Tastes Best Women's Fiction Pick for the American Library Association. Mother of three children, wife to one, slave to a cat, and caretaker of the best overgrown teddy bear on Earth, Gatsby the Goldendoodle.

3 thoughts on “Writing Wednesdays: Creating Sympathetic Characters

  1. Perfect advice, Margaret! It’s just what I needed to get me over a hump. Thank you!

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