Please Like Me: the Sympathetic Character

Another way to keep readers glued to your prose is through establishing an emotional bond between that audience and the story’s protagonist.

If you can create a character that readers like and care about, that connection will carry you a long way.

So how do you design such a character? How do you reach readers? Through emotion, attitude, action, and goal. Let’s deal with those one at a time.

EMOTION

The best way to touch a reader’s feelings is to evoke them through the character’s emotions. You can write something like this:

Bob stood by the grave, staring at the headstone. A cold drizzle was falling on his shoulders, soaking through his suit. He shivered a little, but didn’t bother opening the tightly furled umbrella in his left hand. In his other, he held a small, wilting bouquet of white roses. He’d tried to be here for the funeral. It had been impossible to get leave from work. Now, three weeks too late, he’d come. He frowned at the stone, then tossed the bouquet on top of the mound and walked away.

Or this:

Bob stood by the grave, staring at the headstone with a strong sense of unreality. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Children didn’t die before their parents. A cold drizzle was falling on his shoulders, soaking through his suit and making him shiver. He didn’t intend to cry, but a tear slid down his cheek anyway. It felt hot against his chilled skin. Although he held a tightly furled umbrella in his left hand, he didn’t open it. His father had taught him that grown men never cried, that it was a sign of weakness, a mark of shame. But today, the rain could hide his tears, and no one would know how sorry he was for what had happened. He tightened his grip on the small bouquet of wilting roses before tossing it onto the mound. He should have been here for the funeral. He’d been too cowardly to insist that his boss grant him leave for the service. Now, he was more ashamed of that than anything else. Abruptly, he turned and walked away, trying not to run.

In these two examples, we basically have identical action. However, our perception of the character is different in each one because of the emotions that are present or absent.

Consider your reaction to Bob as you read each example. Did you like Bob in either presentation? Did you care about him more in one than the other? Why? What did you respond to positively and what did you dislike?

How readers react to your characters is never happenstance. Writers should control and manage that response.

ATTITUDE

There’s the old adage about the optimist seeing the glass as half-full and the pessimist seeing it half-empty. Identical glass; two very different reactions to it.

So, does your character have a positive, upbeat attitude? Is your character soured on life and deeply cynical? Is your character living in denial? Is your character the individual who shoves in a panic to get aboard a Titanic lifeboat? Or is your character someone who stands back and lets women and children on first?

Some attitudes we like or respect. We gravitate to individuals who show courage, leadership, loyalty, honesty, and self-reliance. We tend to shy away from people who are lazy, whiners, passive, and self-centered.

What I find appealing may repel you. Figure out what works for you personally. Chances are it will work for your characters as well. Just keep in mind that a slacker attitude in a character doesn’t usually lend itself to an active, goal-oriented protagonist who will carry a plot to the end.

ACTION

In real life, many people are willing to keep things as they are. They’re perhaps afraid to change, afraid to take a risk. So they avoid confrontation, seldom stand up for themselves, and let others take advantage of them.

In fiction, the most heroic or appealing characters tend to be ones who don’t stand around and absorb whatever life dishes out. They take action. They do something, right or wrong. They try to solve the story problem.

Granted, it usually takes a catalyst in the plot to open the story and force the character to take action. That’s why so many stories begin with what we call “a moment of change.” Change is perceived as threatening because it upsets the status quo.

In fiction, protagonists do speak up. They take chances. They dare to try.

It’s what makes such characters larger than life.

GOAL

What a fictional individual wants reveals something about his or her personality or true nature.

Think about the elevator scene in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film, You’ve Got Mail. The elevator operator announces that he loves his girlfriend and decides he should marry her. Tom’s girlfriend announces that she’s going to get LASIK surgery, and Tom realizes that she’s shallow and self-centered, that he doesn’t love her, and that he isn’t going to stay with her. It’s a terrific contrast between one character’s love and tenderness, of his willingness to open his heart to strangers and display vulnerability, and another character’s vain disregard for anyone but herself.

A character’s goal, whether short-term or the story objective, helps define that person. Some goals we can applaud. We’re willing to cheer that character on. We hope he succeeds. We want him to win. Such goals, whatever they may be, help create that empathetic bond between reader and character.

Other goals are signals to readers that this character is up to no good, is cruel or selfish or criminal. We don’t want this individual to succeed. We can’t be sympathetic at all.

All these methods are ways by which you can shape your audience’s like or dislike for the characters you create.

Take charge.

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