A Little Sympathy Goes a Long Way

So you’ve got a plot all written down or perhaps it’s on a jumble of index cards or floating aimlessly in your head. Now what?

In my earlier post about plot I noted that characters are the driving force behind any story. There is more to a character than simply giving a certain personality type a physical form and letting it run amuck in your plot. That may perhaps get the story moving, but it won’t keep the reader overly interested.

The biggest thing about characters is that they need to be engaging. A reader has to actually care about these people and their lives despite that fact that they are not real people. It may seem simple at first. Make a character, design how they look, give them a name, a little history, and then throw them into a dangerous situation. Instant drama. But that does not mean that the reader will care. Indeed, there are quite a few characters that you could lob off a limb and I would care less. In fact, I might even be pleased that your protagonist just died because I have no desire to care for them.

It becomes infinitely more complicated when you design a character that is actually meant to be hated. How do you create a character that a reader is supposed to hate and yet make them engaging as an individual and not another cut out villain? The greatest key I have found is sympathy. You have to make that character sympathetic.

Now, this does not mean the character needs to have a change of heart; by all means no, make them as vile as you desire. The key is making them hated, but making it so that a person can understand why they are so awful; why perhaps you can pity and care for their past self, but loath what they have become. This in the end all ties into history and motivation.

What does your character desire? Why do they desire it? How did this come to occur?

For me the most profound moment of this was my character Anhur. Firstly, his original name was Vincent. In a world where most people had foreign based names or names that were entirely made up he was right off the bat plain with only that. Since his older brother had an Egyptian name I decided to follow suit with Anhur and give him a name change. Then came his purpose; his motivation. Anhur was designed, simply put, to create tension and frankly to move along certain plot points. Sure, he had a general history and a personality, but he was horrifically flat. I could make him as much as a brat as I pleased, but it had no meaning to it; no substance.

I hated him. He was boring and I did not find much enjoyment in writing him. No main member of the cast should be a chore to write and even small characters should not be a pain. I clearly recall being in my last home when this occurred to me. I was going through my afternoon routine, winding down from work, and suddenly I just needed to change him. I needed to tear out everything but the foundation and just rework his history, his motivation, and his personality.

Oh he’s still a brat all right, and you still hate him, but now you understand him. You can see where he is coming from and you can sympathize with who he was. Suddenly everything about him made far more sense. It was amazing how just altering his childhood development suddenly made everything fall into place. His personality, motivation, and future all were lain out so easily after that.

The ultimate joy was perhaps when receiving feedback from my good friend who is the first to read my novel for me. The way she swung between hating him and feeling sorry for him and then being angry that she felt sorry for him was both hilarious and pleasing. All because I had given a reason for him to be sympathized with there was suddenly so much more emotion, depth, and ‘interaction’ of sorts between the reader and this character.

So, when you begin to write, set time aside to work on developing your characters. You will find it a more rewarding and enjoyable task to write once you do.


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