Friday, January 25, 2013

Flaws and Sympathy

Last week, I wrote a post about complex characters and how to write them.

Basically I think it comes down to showing more than one side of a personality, the good, the bad and the ugly.

It's amazing how often new writers are scared of doing this. I was too. When I started writing my fantasy epic, I was honestly terrified of my decision to write complex characters. After all, fantasy is traditionally the land of noble souls, so I was worried that writing something that veers of far from that, I'd alienate my readers.

And you know, it didn't.

In fact, I ended up loving all of my characters, although two of them are capable of being complete bastards. More importantly, the people who've read my novel so far do too.

There are more than one reason for this, but today I want to focus on one.

Sympathy.

A reader is drawn into a story because of sympathy for the character leading them through it. There are a variety of ways to win sympathy for your character. If you're interested, I suggest you see Moody's series on it.

All of Mood's suggestions are valid. To summarize the series to date:
1) Put them in danger.
2) Make them suffer.
3) Strength of character
4) Have the character be an outcast.

I agree, but there's another aspect to emotional attachment between a reader and a character. Emotion. Specifically: the character's emotions.

You see, putting characters through the grinder isn't enough. In fact, it can be a very risky thing to do if it's not coming organically out of the story.

Aside: "organic" as I'm using it now applies to both plotters and pantsers. There are things that happen in a story because it makes sense within the story (organic). Or things happen because the authors need them for the story to make sense. (not-organic)

The risk comes from the fact that readers immediately pick up on non-organic events. (More on these later.) So instead of sympathy, just adding the four factors above will have readers rolling their eyes at best.

Instead, I propose to writers, the emotions themselves are what make the connection. A characters emotions make a reader's move in resonance. (I.E. they strike a chord.) Complexity of emotion along with complexity of character will move the reader completely. That's why characters can be terrible personalities, but still loved.

In every situation. What is the character feeling? Loss? Fear? Dread? Hope? Love? Anger? Resentment? The options go on and on. How the character reacts emotionally will give the reader something to hold on to.

For an example of what I mean, look at Katniss from the Hunger Games Trilogy. She's mean, cynical, stubborn and out for her own interests above those of others. Not exactly likable noble character material. Yet, she kept millions of readers interested through three books. Why? Because below everything she says and does, she has a depth of emotion that I hazard to say has been unrivaled by her fictional contemporaries. With all her flaws, she deeply loves her sister, which is why she basically agrees to go to killing fields instead of her. That love is what keeps her going in the killing fields despite the terror and all the other mixed emotions that go with it. I personally couldn't care less about a character named Katniss about to die. I care about a fictional person who did something completely against her personality traits because her love for her sister over-rode everything else. My suspicion is, I'm not alone.

So to evoke sympathy, let the reader see what's going on with a character, even when it's only glimpses. Don't only make them suffer and go on a murderous rampage. Have them howling in pain first. And for heaven's sake, motivate the pain by love.

Letting the reader see hurt and love and doubt, gives him or her a hold they won't release until the end.

If you manage to do those right, fitting with your character, all those dirty tricks needed for creating sympathy come out on their own.

How do you go about evoking sympathy for your characters?

Before you go, please remember to vote for some awesome bloggers, and to check out my Word Master Challenge. Six more days left to enter. Have a great weekend! 

46 comments:

  1. Sometimes we have to scale back the unlikeable factor as well. I had to do that in my first book as the main character was just too much of a jerk for anyone to relate to.

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    1. I know what you mean. I seriously considered scaling back with my one main character, but ended up trying my CPs with him being in his unlikeable glory. Turns out he was fine just as he was.

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  2. I think to evoke sympathy the reader has to feel like they could be in their shoes - so they can't be too perfect or too horrid. One thing I learned in a workshop that works too is: have your character want something really badly. Keep them from getting it. Then when it seems like they might get it, keep them from getting it - again. It's that "make him suffer, then make him suffer some more" idea I guess. And yes - motivated by love is definitely key, I think!

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    1. You make a good point, although I tend to think it's more a case of people being able to see that they'd do the same thing in the same situation with the same background.

      So it's important to show the situation and the backstory in a way that helps the story.

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  3. I completely agree with you on this, Misha. You have nailed it on its head. As I am reading the last book of Hunger Games (finished the first 2 books). You described Katniss perfectly.

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    1. Thanks! I thought she was a good example because she stuck around in my memories months after I finished the series. :-)

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  4. I read this with interest, being a poetry writer it is somewhat different to writing a novel.I seem to focus on life's experiences.
    Good post.
    Yvonne.

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    1. Oh yes, writing a poem is satisfying in it's own way, but so different from doing a novel.

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  5. Most excellent advice! It's so important to be able to connect to our characters in some way. Strife is definitely one of those ways--as adveristy is something we all face in life.

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    1. Definitely, as long as strife is inherent to the story or characterization. Nothing is more annoying than a writer putting strife into a novel without regard for how easily it could be solved (but isn't).

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  6. I love your dastards. They are awesome. I hope everybody gets to read Doorways soon.

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  7. I have a character in my book, who is one of my favorites even though he's minor and completely evil (he's a tiny construct made to look like a skeleton, and when he screams his voice actually fills a room. Haha). Most of the time I'm writing him, his broiling emotions are what comes through strongest.

    I need to put more emotion into the main characters, I think...

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    1. Yeah it's difficult to get the "normal" characters' emotions to come across right when the rage-monster is around.

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  8. I liked flawed characters. I like imperfections because that's real and that's what people connect to.

    Whether I've been successful in writing characters to which people will relate or sympathize remains to be seen, but I strive to do it.

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    1. Yeah it's always hard to see it in our own writing.

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  9. You bring up some really great points here on sympathetic characters. I totally agree about Katniss. She wasn't the "nicest" character, but she had some uber lovable qualities.

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    1. Thanks! Glad you liked the post.

      I don't think Katniss would have been so adored if not for those qualities.

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  10. Good advice. I was too easy on my characters when I began.

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  11. Good advice. It is something I am kind of new in practicing but it is resulting extremely enlightening.

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    1. It definitely can be most illuminating if you do it right.

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  12. Good to see your name! I appreciated your advice and see what happens when I use it!

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    1. Thanks! It's nice to be out and about again.

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  13. Nuance, relatability, and situations evoking sympathy and emotions are very important. Sometimes a character isn't the most likable or moral, but we as readers come to love them and cheer for them because they're going through so much, and we understand what's driving them.

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    1. So true. And if you think about it, everyone hates a Mary Sue. :-)

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  14. Everyone character is multi-faceted. Katniss is self-interested, but she looks out weaker people. She cared for the character Rue, even though they were not related. That's what made her so likable, I think.

    Maria

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    1. Definitely. There has to be something that gives the reader resonance. If not, the character is screwed.

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  15. I will often give the character relatable qualities to invoke sympathy, with a good psychological backdrop to make it all plausible. Awesome post! :)

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    1. Thanks! Yeah I think the psychological background goes a big way towards reader sympathy.

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  16. Spot on. I enjoyed reading this post. :)

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  17. I have lots of characters, all multifaceted and everyone likes them. Of course, there are the ones they don't like or liked in the beginning and now hate. So I think I have done a decent job. I put my characters through some tough stuff and they don't always come out smelling like roses but they do persevere.

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    1. Yeah I don't honestly care if a character is likeable as long as he/she intrigues a reader enough to sit through the story. :-)

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  18. ...maybe I'm in the minority here, but I hated Katniss. She's the reason I wanted to throw The Hunger Games against the wall and never read any more of the series. I wanted her to die because she was annoying and stereotypical, especially concerning her little sister.

    I think Huckleberry Finn and Snape from Harry Potter are better complex characters.

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    1. I thought about them as examples, but the thing with them is that they're pretty much universally likable and I wanted to show how that's not a necessity when you're looking to write a sympathetic character. :-)

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  19. Yes! I love characters who are flawed but lovable through it all--it's so important to connect with humanity--I relate to imperfection. :)

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    1. There's a good word for what causes sympathy: humanity. We relate to anyone who shows it. :-)

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  20. Great advice Misha. I'm just launching into creating a real baddy in my WIP, and I shall consider him from a different perspective now. (Perhaps him Mummy threw away his blankie too soon... or not. More work obviously needed on this one!)
    Digging Deep!
    ~Just Jill

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    1. Hahahaha that's always a great idea. I used to see my baddy as a rather simple creature, but he actually had a lot happen to make him the way he is.

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  21. I think a lot of it is showing how characters overcome their flaws once they're aware of them. Characters who don't change are annoying; the ones that do are the ones we identify with and develop sympathy for.

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  22. I don't know if I consciously try to evoke sympathy for my characters when I write. But I try to put them in situations where they can experience things (e.g. angst, being lost) that perhaps readers can relate to.

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    1. That's what I do to. I show who they are through the things I let them go through. Then I hope it resonates with someone. :-D

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  23. Great post, and love your analysis of Katniss. Well put! I certainly found her less than likeable and you've given a good explanation as to why she's nonetheless an engaging character.

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    1. Thanks Adina. Same here. Can't say I like her, but boy did I cry for her.

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