Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sympathetic Characters

Years ago following a rejection, an author wrote to me and asked what it meant if an editor said she didn’t find her main character entirely sympathetic. While you may disagree with the editor, thinking no character needs to be “entirely” sympathetic, let’s think about this.

I’ve written about villains and the need to make them have at least one redeeming attribute. Although the Godfather, Vito Corleone, could be ruthless and violent, he would do anything to protect his family. Poor Frankenstein, the monster, is feared by all and blamed for much, but he was created by a scientist without weighing the repercussions, and all Frankenstein the monster wanted was to find love.

If the villain needs a quality that connects with readers, you know that the main characters in your novel must related to your reader through similarities to their own lives or to people whom they know. Just as villains aren’t perfect, neither are your main characters. The readers aren’t perfect either, but they understand that the characters cannot control their own flaws sometimes. So when you create characters, though you give them personal flaws and cause them to make mistakes or bad judgment, you make them likeable by creating reasons beyond the character’s control that causes them to fail.

To create sympathetic characters, give them issues in their pasts and then provide similar situations in their present. Allow them to see their mistakes but not the solutions. Along with these flaws, give them attributes the reader admires, qualities in which the readers can relate. Things like love of family, children or animals connects with readers. Thoughtfulness, patience, hard working, kindness are all attributes that are admired by readers.

Don’t create stupid characters. As they stumble, give them clues to why they failed. Create scenes that open their eyes so they recognized what molded them to be the way they are, and then help them pick up the clues to their own self-destruction.

Cocky, overly confident, unforgiving, lacking warmth or kindness creates characters readers cannot admire or feel empathy. If they are too self-sufficient, too in control, too perfect, readers will not relate. They want to read novels about characters they can root for.

Take a look at your characters. Are they sympathetic? If not, see what you can do to make them so. Readers will relate, and you will create a novel editors can love.

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