Can I get a little sympathy?

When writing, sometimes you want a character to be sympathetic. Admittedly, sometimes you want to create antipathy, but we’ll start with sympathy and work our way over.

The sympathy we create can be for our main character. We do after all want our reader invested in his journey through the tale. we want them following along as he wends his way through our story. However it can also be for a secondary character. Perhaps you need your hero to feel sympathy towards someone else to advance his story. There are several ways we can create sympathy for our character in question regardless of their role

  • Generosity
  • Intelligence
  • Sacrifice/Selflessness
  • Danger
  • Unfair Odds
  • Appearance

Let’s look at a classic fairytale situation.

Our soon to be hero is the youngest son of a despotic king. We’ll call him King Callus, just so everyone knows in advance that he isn’t a nice guy. (this isn’t a subtle story). With several older brothers, our hero Prince Kindly, isn’t in line to inherit anything, will probably be married off for political reasons and just for fun his father the king hates him. I’m sure there is a reason, but whatever the reason is I’m sure it is not Kindly’s fault.

News comes in of a princess captured by a dragon. Her father agrees to let whoever rescues her marry her and become his heir. While many think this is a good deal, thus far the dragon has roasted every knight in a hundred leagues and is stocking up on ketchup to slather on his crispy knight-kabobs.

King Callus thinks this will be a good way to get rid of Prince Kindly and thus orders him out to slay the dragon anticipating his failure. Kindly doesn’t particularly want to go but Callus tells him he must and that he isn’t welcome in the palace again until he has won the day. Kindly realizes he will probably die but he’s pretty sure the captured princess is not having a peachy time of it so he feels he out to at least try to save her.

So Kindly sets out on his quest even though he is not very good in swordplay. He is more comfortable with chess than he is with jousting. But he is willing to give it a go. Along the way he meets with the old lady of the wood. Various questers pass her by without paying attention, but our hero is different (we knew he would be) and helps her out. When he does she transforms into a beautiful enchantress and gives him the things that he needs to survive and win the quest, if he uses them well.

Kindly uses the tools, but has to use them in smart and clever ways that the sorceress didn’t explain to him (otherwise it isn’t much of a challenge). He undergoes trials and tribulations and then after much effort he defeats the dragon, marries the princess, becomes the hair to his own throne and mounts the dragon’s head on the wall which soon becomes quite dusty as no one wants to climb up to dust it.

I think that story, while not the most original saga in the world, covers most of our points. Oh I should add that Prince Kindly is very handsome. There that covers it. So let’s pick it apart.

It is very unfair of King Callus to not like Prince Kindly. Everything we as the author know about him points to him being a great guy. Did he not help the local farmers build an appropriate trap last winter when a wolf was terrorizing the countryside? And a few years back did he not use his own allowance to purchase and ship extra medical supplies to a mining town in the kingdom after there was that accidental explosion?

He did indeed. And of course we will work these in to show his kindness and generosity. So we of course were not surprised when he saw the starving old lady and offered her a share of his bread. We expected it, even though we knew more than twenty questers had been by earlier that day. It was believable at this point that Kindly would stop to help her. We would quite frankly be shocked if he hadn’t. If he hadn’t been generous, we would have doubted that he was in fact our hero.

And even though our old lady in the wood, when she transforms into the sorceress gives him the secrets, he still has to use his brains to get through the tasks. There is still the element of risk, and as we know he is not the best with a sword it will be quite an effort for him to defeat the dragon. He will be in very deep danger, not only from the dragon.

Oh no, there will be other trials to get through before he reaches the dragon. Fairytale standard usually puts three challenges with the dragon being the third and final challenge. First he will have to get past the opportunistic tailors who are making a killing by collecting shed dragon scales and then there are the spice merchants who are selling virtual barrels of seasonings to the dragon for his knight kabobs. The dragon won’t part with his gold, but they get to keep all of the discarded armor and have a brisk resale trade going.

They will not be easy to defeat.

I won’t belabor the point too much more, but even in this simple, classic tale you can see the basic sympathy creating mechanisms. They can be used in other stories as well, even if they aren’t fairytales. Just don’t go too far. Your hero shouldn’t be too perfect otherwise your reader won’t be rooting for them to win. A hero who always wins and is going to win again with little effort isn’t that fun to read. I’m sure you remember our little talk about making our characters struggle. Our readers have to want them to succeed and at times be uncertain if they will make it across that finish line.

A quick word about appearance though. It is sad but true that appearance often denotes character in literature. Beautiful is good and ugly is bad. Take a look at our old lady/sorceress. Were you surprised that I called her the beautiful sorceress? Probably not. that was your storybook clue to know that she was good and kind without me having to say it. I’m sure in the story she shows it, but her appearance backs it up. We know she isn’t tricking Kindly.

This can be a problem. I remember reading a book a while ago where the author was clearly trying to make the pretty girl the heroine of the story. it was clear they loved her and thought she was fabulous. Everything about her however reminded me of one of the mean girls in middle school. Even though it was clearly not written as a cheer on the villain story, I kept cheering on the villain.

Watching your depiction of beauty can help you tell the story you want. So just keep in mind that while traditionally beautiful is good and ugly is bad, beautiful and ugly don’t mean the same to everyone.

I’m sure you have also noticed that we have created our villain, or rather two villains as we created our hero. The dragon and King Callus. They, of course, in this tale display the opposite traits to Prince Kindly. They are unfair, Callus to Kindly and the dragon in kidnapping the princess to insure a steady supply of tasty knights. Callus bullies Kindly into going to rescue the girl by kicking him out and neither the dragon or king think too much of anyone but themselves. We’ll go further into villains at a later date but just know that there is a balance between hero and villain as you write.

So those are a few quick thoughts on making your character sympathetic. Sure, your story may involve accountants and lawyers rather than dragons and kings, but the basic list of things a reader wants in your hero are still in there. Using them, can help your story shine.

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