Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

Gimme Sympathy

How do you make your characters more or less sympathetic? Why would you want to change how sympathetic a character is to the reader?

I have been working on how to make Nissa, a selfish thief and survivor, a likeable character to readers.  She is good with horses and stealing money, not so great at making friends.  Why would the other characters want to be friends with her?  Because she’s the main character isn’t a really compelling reason.  I think I want to make her stand up for the underdog and never back down from a challenge.  That should give her some opportunities early on to earn the respect from other characters and thereby gain the affection of the reader (I hope).

This week I listened to the Writing Excuses podcast Adjusting Character Sympathy. Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells spend fifteen minutes expanding on a previous podcast that touched on this idea.

They discuss character sympathy, which is the sympathy that the reader will have for the character, as well as methods writers us to adjust that sympathy. Brandon Sanderson calls this “moving the slider.” They also discuss reason to make the adjustment, whether they are dealing with main characters, secondary characters, or antagonists. Also, new vocabulary word “stompled upon.”

Some of the tricks they suggest for “moving the slider” include:

  • Changing the characters around them
  • Controlling the distance between the reader and the character
  • Showing character weaknesses
  • Using humor to mask the unsympathetic moments.

4 comments on “Gimme Sympathy

  1. William Bernhardt has some great advice about this very topic in his Red Sneakers Writers series, particularly the “Creating Character” volume. Probably very similar to what you heard in the podcast he suggests ways to endear your character to the audience.

    • tracycembor
      July 4, 2014

      Ooo, thanks so much for the recommendation. I will definitely be checking that out this weekend. Some of my characters are in need of additional warm fuzzies.

    July 4, 2014

    I think that the best way is really to engineer your character’s story in a very solid way. my favourite example is probably when in the lord of the rings the fellowship bumps into people like aragorn, you feel pretty quickly “there’s more to him that meets the eye” and start to respect ant to like him.

    so as long as the good heart of your heroine shines through in the subtlest ways (as weakness, as boldness, as impact on others), the readers will start to fall in love with her.

    masking with humour sounds like a slippery path to me personally though :) non?

  3. ericjbaker
    July 4, 2014

    I think readers will gravitate toward the main character naturally, even if she is a work-in-progress as a human being. It’s nature to latch on and identify. I’d say the two no-nos are MCs who whine all the time and MCs who do nothing to affect outcomes (i.e., everything happens to them but they have nothing to contribute to their own fates)

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This entry was posted on July 3, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .

Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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