Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Creating Sympathetic Characters

So I have this problem. My main character is whiny. Actually, male readers find her whiny. Women think that she is perfectly reasonable (because her life is unfair, as any good heroine's life is). While my target demographic is mostly female 18-35, but since this is fantasy there will also be male readers. And she is whiny.

A lovable and sympathetic character is flawed, but not too flawed. If they are perfect, then why care about reading the book. They have nothing to learn, and in that way, nothing to teach us, as people learn through learning from mistakes.

Personally, as a reader I can't stand an unsympathetic main character. If I want to shake or smack the main character, I'm likely to put the book down and just walk away. I'm a character reader. A good premise hooks me, but I want to see what people do in those situations. How they rise to the challenges, stumble and then ultimately succeed. I want to see them do things that I couldn't and say things that I can't. I don't want it to be too easy because the harder something is to obtain the more valuable it is, even in fiction.

Things that make a character sympathetic:
* Has Gumption
* Is Larger Than Life (but with weaknesses too)
* Is an underdog (or at least has an adversary that seems stronger)
* Doesn't wallow in misery, but instead takes action (partially my problem with Hailey)
* We are shown verses told about their motivations and desires
* Is Multi-Dimensional
* Hardworking and has the need to work hard (meaning, life is not perfect)
* Creative solution-finder (but not too creative, and everything used to create solutions can't be too out of the blue)
* Consistent reactions (yes, they change, but in an arc and slowly, often with one step forward and two steps back)
* Strives to be better (either personally, financially, politically...they don't just sit there...they do)
* Tenacity

Above all, don't try to trick the reader into thinking that the character is sympathetic by giving them a cat to love that has nothing to do with the story or a dying grandma that has nothing to do with the story or a heroic dead that has nothing to do with the story or... You get the idea. Don't just slap something on the top to make the person nicer.

We need to get inside their heads. The reader needs to understand the goals and motivations behind the character's actions. A reader doesn't even have to like the character to sympathize with them. I think some of the best novels have sympathetic villains. You understand what is moving them. You don't agree with it, but you get it. Of course, they cannot be more sympathetic than the main character.

Still, Hailey is whiny and I need to fix it. What I am going to do is:
* Have Hailey recognize that she is whiny and consciously try to stop.
* Show Hailey doing what she enjoys (and is getting taken away from) so that the reader feels badly for her (showing that she likes her current life and the juxtaposing it with her not fitting in (but trying) with her new life rather than telling that she doesn't like the changes the plot has forced her along to)
* Make Hailey more observant so that she has other things to focus on

Have any of you ever tried to make your characters more sympathetic? Why were they unsympathetic and how did you fix it?

14 tidbits:

Andrea Coulter said...

actually my first version of my MC was kind of whiny also. And she let people push her around, and was a bit naive and dim because she got surprised and crushed when people were mean to her. And she was supposed to be a scrappy street-brat. I think that was the main point: she wasn't acting the way someone like her would act. With her background, she SHOULD have been less trusting, more tenacious, and more resilient.

So I rewrote her, keeping her personality in mind and asking myself at each step: how would she react to this twist, this person? (I'd thought I was doing that before, but I wasn't) And while the overall twists of the story stayed the same, her reactions to them changed and she became more real, more likable ... and less whiny :)

Lucas Darr said...

I have been there. I created a character that was not whiny, but arrogant, spoiled and a bit of a prima donna.

That was my intention, for the character, as the book progresses, becomes wiser and sympathetic to others. She grows up. However, I overdid it, and a beta reader rightly pointed out that it was difficult to read about the character because she was not someone she could identify with at the beginning of the book.

Since my book is not a character driven novel, this was a clear problem. The book was not about the journey of the character from one stage of life to the next.

I fixed this by putting in a scene, right up front that gave readers an insight into her mind, and showed her in a positive, vulnerable light.

This made the beginning of the novel much better. Indeed, the scene was a big piece of foreshadowing, and the entire novel improved by its simple addition.

Good post!

Anonymous said...

Wow.. excellent post. That is the most challanging thing.. to create a character that you don't like yet still want to sympathize with. I'm trying it for the first time right now.. and it's not easy.

Funny you should mention throwing in a cat that has nothing to do with the scene.. so true. I went to a lecture by Blake Snyder at the PNWA conference this past summer, and that is exactly the tool used in movies. After hearing him say that, it's so true.. movies do it ALL THE TIME! Now it's starting to drive me nuts seeing it.

I hope we can make our characters complex enough to keep it out of novels..

Nice post..

The Blonde Duck said...

I made a character's girlfriend really sterotypical once, and decided to re-write the whole thing so she didn't look like your typical whiny girlfriend.

Lauren said...

@lynn- I like how you said you focused on rewriting her, with internal dialog. That is very smart. I bet it made for a really well defined charector. I've been reading little bits about your work and now I'm even more intreged about a female scrappy street-brat. Often I think street brat charectors tend to be male--or at least the books I read they have been. Sounds like a great character.

@anthony- My characteris suppose to grow too. Actually, she is suppose to over compensate and then, later on in other books in the series, find a happy medium. One of the points of the book, sort of, is that everyone is out for themselves. The next book I am going to try to say that people are out for themselves, but they often think they aren't or wish they weren't.

That was a great idea to add that scene. I'm adding one that I hope will be good enough. Hopefully this week so that the first set of chapters will be ready for review again...

@peter- Thanks for visiting my blog and for posting a comment. I didn't realize that was a classic example. In my novel, there is a mountain lion who really is suppose to be there, but sort of seems thrown in and that is why I said cat (but I was refering to the house cat). That is actually another piece I have to work on--lol.

@duck- I think that flat characters on the first write aren't too bad if they are side charectors. I'm a big rewriter so I often leave stuff like that to work on later when the main charector arc is finished. But that's just me...I'm weird :-P.

I hope that your re-write didn't take too long, but I bet it made everything alot tighter and more realistic. :)

Anonymous said...

I have thought while writing to not make my characters too annoying. I haven't thought about it to the extent you have, though. Thanks for putting this in my mind, though.


Spy Scribbler said...

Lauren, great post! I sometimes have them behave disagreeably (whining, or whatever), while doing something that "shows" them to be a good person.

Like, I don't know, complaining about the world while fixing a toddler's toy, or zipping up his jacket and giving him a kiss on the forehead. Or sometimes I'll take it to an extreme, like have her complain SO much, that the unspoken subtext is clear. Ex: she loves and worries about the person she's complaining about, and wants to protect him/her. Or have her complain so that we can see its foundation is insecurity, or fear, or a loneliness.

If that makes any sense. :-)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lauren-Please consider contributing a review of a forgotten book to my blog project. If you can, email me at
You can see them at

Sepiru Chris said...


These posts on your writing are very interesting to me. I write non-fiction, although I enjoy fiction very much. I had not thought of some of these issues from a writer's perspective. Very interesting.

Cavan said...

If I make my characters complain about stuff, it's usually because they're jaded, cynical types. Make them complain, and it can be funny or add depth to their character. But, it doesn't seem to work too well with more earnest characters, does it?

Also, woot for sympathetic villains. Then again, most of my stories seem to be about criminals, so the whole hero/villain things is sort of blurred anyway.

Lauren said...

@writer- I only thought of it because a very good CP told me and then I reread and realized that he was right--else I probably wouldn't have given it a deeper thought either.

@leon- Thanks for popping by my blog and for saying hi.

@spy- Those are fantastic ideas--especially about showing the underlying emotions to the complaining.

@pattinase- Thanks so much. I'll email you off-line. I'm going to have to think about it for a bit first though.

@Chris- It's funny because I get so many neat idea from your posts. I've actually reiterated some of the things that I have learned on your blog. It makes me look smrt :-P. (misspelled for comedic effect, but not as much after having explained the joke)

@cavan- I love it when the typical "villains" become the story's heroes and the writer shows how they aren't all bad or are just trying to get by.

stu said...

I suspect the main thing is that if this is the character's big flaw, their area for future growth and change, then it's important that they DO grow and change. If the whining isn't a flaw that you intend to improve on, cut it, or have her actively berate herself for whining.

Charles Gramlich said...

You lay it out very well. I'd read about that kind of character.

Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!

Related Posts with Thumbnails