Recall a time you made an effort to get someone to like you. Did you try to get them to relate to you, or want to spend more time with you? It’s kind of the same way with the main character in your book. Readers finish books when they care about what happens to the protagonist. To accomplish this, you need to craft a sympathetic character.
When you write a book, you’re asking readers to invite your character into their homes, their hangouts, their lives. It’s important to create a protagonist your reader wants to spend time with and that they care about enough to stick around to find out what happens to them.
Without that vital concern, suspense cannot be sustained. And without suspense, the reader will lose interest in your story. I talked about this in depth in my post on suspense.
Today, let's talk about how to make your readers like—if not love—your characters so that you can sustain suspense in your book.
A Case in Point
One of the first stories I ever wrote was Adalet (free on Amazon). Before publishing, I shared it here in the workshop at The Write Practice, and got some harsh but instructive feedback. The first two paragraphs drew the reader into the story world, but I misfired on the second foundational essential—making sure my reader could empathize with my protagonist.
Adalet, though a flawed protagonist, is a decent person, putting her life on the line for a worthy cause. But she’s a flat-out liar. I knew if readers gave her a chance, got to know her and understand why she does what she does, they’d be on her side.
But readers don’t patiently wait for a reason to like and care about your character throughout the course of a story. If you don’t create a sympathetic character right up front, you’ve lost them.
Beyond lying, my Adalet did distasteful and incomprehensible things. Her reasons are revealed layer by layer, but few readers would stay the course long enough to discover them.
It took time for readers to see that she could be a sympathetic character. Time I couldn't afford to spend.
It’s All About the Reader
I had a problem. To fix it, I thought about something my mentor, Dean Wesley Smith, is always driving home to me—there are readers on the other side of my words. Looking at the opening scenes of Adalet and putting myself in the reader’s place, I asked:
- Would I like Adalet enough to want to spend a story’s length of time with her?
- Does she stir enough empathy in me so that I care about what happens to her?
- Is there anything about her that rallies me to her side?
- Is she likeable, or is she an unsympathetic character?
I saw plenty of reasons to be curious about what she was doing, and that can take a reader part way. However, to sustain a reader’s forward movement through your story, you need more. You need to give your reader a reason to invest in your hero's outcome. When they do, they'll root for them to get what they want before the plot ends.
First, you need to ground your reader inside your viewpoint character’s head. This pulls the reader deep into the world of your story. Then, you need to make them care about what happens to your character.
When you make your characters sympathetic, you give your reader compelling reasons to keep turning pages to find out what happens.
To address my problem with Adalet, I used some of the techniques we’ll be discussing in this article. Let's look first at how to establish a strong connection between your reader and your main character—tips that will help you make your protagonist sympathetic.
The Character Connection
Your two primary goals upon starting any story are to:
- Solidly ground your reader in the setting and point of view character, and
- Forge an emotional connection between the reader and your main character strong enough that your reader will care about what happens to them.
The glib answer here is to create a likable character, and nine times out of ten, that’ll be a good way to go. But that tenth time, you may need to create a character that’s not likable, yet somehow still intriguing and fascinating enough that readers will want to spend time getting to know them.
A character with an edge.
Despite certain repellent characteristics, your reader must form some kind of bond with them. This means readers will have something to admire or relate to in the character. Think of Walter White in Breaking Bad or Michael Corleone in The Godfather. They're not exactly good guys, but they do start out with reasons for doing the bad things that they do.
Remember, fictional characters—like real people and onions—have layers. If you can portray those layers well, your reader will find something to bond with.
Who doesn’t fall for the gruff curmudgeon with a heart of gold? Crusty and mean to all outward appearances, his behavior reveals unsuspected depths of kindness or honor. Or the smug know-it-all who’s coming to terms with the realization that he really doesn’t know it all.
Presentation, combined with actions, reveals character.
In this article, we’ll discuss ten techniques you can pick and choose from to get your reader in the cheering circle, standing by your character to the very last page.
10 Writing Techniques to Craft Sympathetic Characters
There are tips writers can use to craft a sympathetic character. Specifically, I think there are ten techniques that best do this, each of which I explain in depth with examples below.
1. Give Your Character a Hidden Wound
When a reader sees your character struggle with a secret defect—or a troubling ghost that won’t be laid to rest—it brings out the compassion in them. As do moments of weakness, loneliness, or vulnerability.
Another angle on this is having a character who made mistakes in the past and regrets them now. We’ve all been in this situation, so it’s easy to relate and sympathize.
In Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, the second Mrs. Maxim de Winter battles her own vulnerability and the ghost of her predecessor, garnering feelings of sympathy as well as loads of suspense. Here's a brief excerpt:
“I knew then that he had mistaken my silence for fatigue, and it had not occurred to him I dreaded this arrival at Manderley as much as I had longed for it in theory. Now the moment was upon me I wished it delayed, I wanted to draw up at some wayside inn and stay there, in a coffee-room, by an impersonal fire. I wanted to be a traveller on the road, a bride in love with her husband. Not myself coming to Manderley for the first time, the wife of Maxim de Winter.”
Reading this, our hearts go out to the timid girl who must walk in the shadow of the glorious Rebecca. We feel sympathy for the orphaned paid companion who finds herself suddenly cast as lady of the manor, a role for which she is ill prepared and which terrifies her.
As the story unfolds, justifying her terror, our sympathy grows in proportion with the suspense, and we read on with increased concern and curiosity to see what happens.
We all have hidden wounds, whether scarred over or still healing, and reading about someone struggling with the same type of emotions resonates and makes us care about that character.
2. How Your Character Treats Others Matters
It’s always a good idea to show readers how your protagonist treats others. When we see someone behaving with kindness and consideration, it generates similar feelings in ourselves. Doing this gives your character at least one redeeming quality, shows he's not a bad guy, and asks readers to give him a chance.
When your character's kindness is extended to children, animals, or the elderly, our esteem for that character rises. This is because in our culture:
- Children represent innocence. We instinctively like and care about someone who relates to kids, plays with them, likes them and is liked in return.
- We appreciate those who treat animals well, and something in our nature convinces us that animals are good judges of character.
- A character who spends time in genuine concern over an older person's well-being earns our warmth and regard.
Think of Dr. Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, and how he treats his child patient with respect and genuine concern. Or how Dr. Alan Grant protects and looks after the two imperiled children in Jurassic Park.
When your character authentically cares about children and treats them well, we authentically like and care about that character.
In a similar vein, if your character pets the dog and the dog responds with affection, that goes down in our book as approval.
A great example is when the prickly character, Melvin, cares for his neighbor’s dog in As Good As It Gets. The dog even forgives Melvin for throwing him down the garbage chute, demonstrating he’s sniffed out Melvin’s true nature—the one he keeps hidden beneath the rough exterior.
Likewise, in a world where the elderly are so often marginalized and thought of as no longer capable of valuable contributions, a character who takes time to serve and uplift an older person will earn points in the compassionate column.
Think about the relationship that develops between Hoke and the elderly woman he serves in Driving Miss Daisy. Or the love and respect Laura shows toward her blind and aging mother in Sleeping With The Enemy. Or how Dan Torrance, in his role as a hospice orderly, uses his shining to comfort his elderly, dying patients in Dr. Sleep.
On some level, each of us feels the approach of old age and can appreciate and admire a character who invests time and effort into caring for the elderly.
Regardless of who your protagonist helps, writers who showcase how their main character treats others with courtesy, respect, and genuine affection will encourage readers to care about that character and what happens to them.
Score bonus points when the behavior is turned toward children, pets, and the aging.
3. Characters Who Make Sacrifices
The human response is to help others in times of trouble. When your reader sees your character reaching out to help someone in need, they won’t be able to help liking that character. And if that assistance requires a sacrifice on their part, that affection will solidify into respect and concern for the character's own well-being.
Having your character help others, especially at a cost to themself, will generate appeal and support for that character.
Think of Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, who puts himself at risk multiple times to help those who are injured. In the midst of a horrendous bus/train wreck, he skates the narrow edge of danger to save the life of a prison guard and later risks exposure when he details the man’s injuries to an ambulance crew.
In another scene, he saves a dying child and in doing so, draws the attention of a suspicious ER physician, nearly getting himself caught.
He didn't need to do these things. His interests were better served by leaving those unfortunate victims to their fate, but our regard for him skyrockets when he risks his own safety for the sake of strangers.
Showing your character performing selfless acts to help others is a powerful way to secure reader support and make sure your reader cares.
4. A Victim of Undeserved Misfortune
As human beings, we’re wired to feel compassion for victims, especially if their misfortune is undeserved. Readers feel immediate empathy for such a character, and often identify with the victim, in some way feeling their pain.
This is a superb way to get the reader in a solid support position behind your protagonist.
There are a hundred different methods for making this happen. The list might include bullying and brutality, prejudice, abuse, abandonment, rejection, poverty, false accusations, physical or mental disability, death of a loved one, or some other type of devastating loss.
For an example of how it’s been successfully done, let’s go once more to the movies.
In Sleeping With The Enemy, Laura is the victim of a controlling and abusive husband. We sense her inherent goodness, see her efforts to please, and our empathy goes out to her as she struggles, trapped in a nightmare relationship.
As each aspect of her victimization is revealed—the hard-fisted control, the way he manipulates, violates, and threatens her—we care more and more about seeing her escape and we invest in watching to see how it happens.
Undeserved misfortune generates instant empathy in most readers. It’s in our nature.
5. A Misunderstood Character
Few things rouse us to the heated defense of a character like seeing him misunderstood when we know he’s right. The frustration, indignation, and helplessness can be palpable.
In the movie Flight Plan, the protagonist, a woman named Kyle Pratt, boards a plane with her young daughter as they accompany her husband's body back to the States for burial. Soon after, the daughter disappears, and nobody believes Kyle when she says her daughter is missing.
The plot thickens, the danger grows, and by the final third of the movie, Kyle herself begins to wonder if she’s gone insane. We're behind her every step of the way, though, longing for her vindication, and it feels so good when it comes.
We all know what it's like to be misunderstood, and building that into your character is a powerful way to make your reader care about what happens.
6. An Underdog
It’s hard not to love a good underdog story. One way or another, we can all relate to the downtrodden character who rises against insurmountable odds.
Making your character the underdog is an ultra-effective way to secure your reader’s sympathy and make him care.
One of my favorite examples is The Shawshank Redemption.
Andy Dufresne is an innocent man, sent to prison for the murder of his wife and her lover. That alone grabs our sympathy, but that's only the beginning. To make your character an underdog, you need to really stack the odds against him.
In prison, Andy suffers pain, humiliation, loneliness, despair, and a lot of other bad things, giving him every reason to sink and never rise again. But he shows us his underlying strength and determination to conquer the setbacks in his life. What's more, he shares his occasional windfalls with his fellow inmates, winning their support. And ours.
The darker it gets for Andy, the more we rally behind him, thirsting for victory. A well-written underdog story rouses the reader’s sympathy like no other, so put this one in your toolbox and don’t forget to use it when called for.
If you'd like to see a more detailed breakdown of the underdog story in The Shawshank Redemption, go here.
7. Highly Competent
A character who excels at some skill inspires our admiration and liking, whether enthusiastically or reluctantly given.
Don’t believe me? Ever seen an episode of House?
Not a warm or fluffy character, Dr. House nevertheless earns our grudging respect with his expertise, and we find ourselves caring about him more and more as the series continues.
How about James Bond? Indiana Jones? These guys are clearly supreme in their chosen arenas. We can’t help but like them and care about what happens to them.
This is because the character inspires confidence. We love being able to sit back and watch a smooth operator at work, someone who really knows their stuff. A superlative professional is a joy to see in action, and when we know a character can deliver, they've earned our admiration and we want them to succeed.
Here’s one of my personal favorites—Patrick Jane in The Mentalist.
He is so in command of his observation skills and it’s great fun to watch as he demonstrates his prowess. I like his interesting character and care so much about what happens to him that I’ve watched every episode of the series. Twice.
Making your character great at something is one way to enlist reader support and caring.
8. Goes Against Type
Most of us don’t like stepping out of our comfort zone and we admire and care about a character who’s willing to stretch his neck out for a worthy cause. Additionally, this type of character arouses our interest and compassion, even when the character is pushed out of their safe space rather than venturing out voluntarily.
So when you set up your protagonist, try delineating their comfort zone and then forcing them outside it. This perks an empathetic response from us and motivates us to care what happens to them because we've all been there at some point in our own experience.
We remember what it feels like to be exposed, scrambling for equilibrium in a hostile environment.
My mentor taught me this concept by pointing out a quintessential example—The Hobbit. Hobbits are homebodies. They like to nestle down in the Shire, eat an astounding number of meals a day, and stay safe and cozy. They are not adventurers.
So when Bilbo strikes out on a dangerous mission, we know he's stretching himself in uncomfortable ways and this gains our support and interest.
Don't overlook the value of pushing your protagonist against the envelope to gain reader sympathy for your character.
9. A Sense of Humor
Everyone loves to laugh. Even in a tense action film, we welcome those moments of comic relief, and we embrace a character who can make us laugh.
Your protagonist might be abrasive or bumbling, but if they are genuinely funny, readers will want to hang around them.
Think about Daniel Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. He had us laughing, liking, and caring about the fate of a family, clear to the end of the film, in spite of his quick temper and erratic behavior. His sense of humor wins us over long enough for his other endearing qualities to kick in and seal the deal.
Or look at the way Guido Orefice kept his sense of humor through the most unlikely and challenging of circumstances for the sake of his child, in Life is Beautiful. That determination to find the funny behind the grim, in order to preserve the innocence and happiness of his young son, steals our hearts and gains our support.
Readers love to spend time with a character who tickles the funnybone and gets them chuckling. Such a character invites readers to like and care about them.
10. Another Character Likes Your Protagonist (and That Love is Returned)
Love between characters, especially family and friends, generates warm feelings in your reader as well. Showing how other characters in the story like and value your protagonist, and how the protagonist responds in a positive manner, even if grudgingly, allows your reader to reciprocate with similar feelings.
In the Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, Lisa is clearly affectionate toward Jeff, and though he initially represses his feelings for her, we see the deeper reality of his love as the story unfolds. Jeff's observations of his neighbors, many afflicted with isolation and loneliness, seem to soften his resistance to marriage. This enables him to at least partially reciprocate Lisa's feelings.
This exchange of affection increases our liking for the both of them and boosts our concern over what happens to them.
When readers see that other characters value, admire, and care about your protagonist, they will too.
Building a Strong Foundation with a Sympathetic Character is Crucial
Don't try cramming all of these techniques into one character, but choose a judicious combination of a few and build them into your viewpoint character. This will allow readers to attach and invest emotionally in the character. In doing so, they'll be pulled into the story and the character's world, and prepared for an un-put-down-able reading experience.
Whatever techniques you choose from this list, crafting a sympathetic character is crucial to grounding your readers in your book and making them care about what happens to the protagonist until the end of the story.
You can't skip this step. A sympathetic character can make or break your book. That's why this post is so important—the strategies in it can help you avoid a mistake that could discourage your readers from reading forward.
Before we go, let's recap what we've seen so far in this series of articles about The Elements of Suspense.
- You now know why suspense is vital in any kind of story.
- You’ve learned what suspense is and why and how it works to drive a reader forward through your story.
- You’ve learned how to start a book to pull a reader into your story, and your character’s point of view so they won’t want to put your book down.
- And now you’ve learned how to make your reader care about what happens to your protagonist.
You are primed and ready to build a strong foundation for a superb and compelling story powered by suspense. By learning and practicing the principles and concepts in these articles, you are building your writer’s toolbox.
You are preparing to write your best work ever!
Which of the strategies for crafting a sympathetic character do you like most? Why? Tell us all about it in the comments!
Choose a technique from today’s article and use it to create a character. Now, spend fifteen minutes writing three or four paragraphs designed to gain a reader’s sympathy and make them care about your character.
When your time is up, Write Practice Pro members can post in the practice workshop here to get feedback. Make sure to give feedback to three other writers too.
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Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.