Making your protagonist a relatable underdog is a great way to encourage your audience to bond with them. Unfortunately, it’s easy for this effort to go wrong. Instead of feeling sympathy for your hero, the audience might think your character is whiny and unpleasant. The narration could come across as contrived, or your protagonist might end up with problems that are much too serious for the story you’re writing. I’ll help you steer clear of these traps and describe how you can effectively give your hero sympathy-inducing problems.
Don’t Twist an Advantage Into a Problem
The first thing any underdog needs is a problem that rings true. But instead of looking for genuine problems, many storytellers do their darndest to convince the audience that blessings are a curse.
- The hero is so beautiful that anyone who’s never met him before stops and stares. He hates all the attention and wishes he were ugly instead.
- The empress has all the wealth and luxury she can ask for, but she has to make all those terrible decisions. She envies the peasants with their simple, happy lives.
- The superhero reviles the day they were caught in a nuclear accident and ended up with the power to run super fast. They just want a normal life without sweet powers.
There can be downsides to advantages like these, but they’re not enough to make your protagonist a sympathetic underdog. Even if you manage to convince some audience members that your character isn’t full of unreasonable angst, blessings disguised as curses will never be as powerful as real problems.
To keep your protagonist from coming across as spoiled or ungrateful, they should be thankful for any advantages they have. You can induce sympathy by giving them a separate problem.
- Let your hero appreciate his beauty, and instead he can suffer from a strange ailment that prevents him from leaving his small village to see the world. If he left, he would quickly run out of the medicine he needs.
- Let your empress be proud of her position, and instead give her terrible waking nightmares that make her afraid to go out in public lest she make a spectacle.
- Let your superhero enjoy running super fast, but give those powers a huge catch. Since the hero is now powered by the sun, as soon as the sun goes down, the hero becomes unconscious and vulnerable.
By creating a separate problem, you have an opportunity to make your protagonist more complex and interesting.
Look Out for Problems That Are Tricky to Use
Many problems can work well with proper implementation but are dangerous to the unwary. In many cases, these problems aren’t worth the trouble.
Serious and Sensitive Topics
Hardships like bigotry and abuse can’t be thrown in your story and forgotten. Because these problems are so serious, you’ll be expected to spend way more page space than you probably want in order to address them. These problems can also be very hurtful and harmful to some readers. For example, just including depictions of suicide can make your readers more likely to actually commit suicide.
The Harry Potter series has this issue in spades. The abuse Harry receives is effective in creating sympathy for him, but J.K. Rowling clearly wasn’t prepared to deal with a problem of that magnitude. She wants him to go back to his abusive family every summer so that she can continue to juice the situation for more sympathy, but the way Dumbledore allows child abuse to continue is detestable. Readers who weren’t familiar with abuse might have waved off the depiction as a little unkindness, but as the series continued and the public discussion grew, it became increasingly obvious.
If you’re going to include topics that are sensitive and divisive, make sure they are important enough to you and your story that you don’t mind spending extra time and care with them. How do you know if it’s sensitive? First, would you classify it as “gritty”? That’s a warning sign. Is it unique to a real group of unprivileged people? Then it’s definitely sensitive. You can read more on what to avoid in our “signs your story is bigoted” posts.
Problems That Are Easy to Solve
Being poor would make for a great problem, except one thing: there are too many ways to solve it. Any type of resource or advantage the protagonist receives during the story can be converted into money. This is a big issue in Name of the Wind, where protagonist Kvothe has not only magic powers he can use to make money but also a wealthy friend of the family that he conveniently forgets about. If you ever want your protagonist to become famous, meet wealthy people, or gain special abilities, you’ll have to deal with all the ways your character could use that to increase their wealth.
Plus, storytellers rarely want to give their protagonist traits that would land them far in debt – like big medical bills or paying for college for three children. Being trapped in poverty is not the stuff of our escapist fantasies, and it’s difficult to pull it off with a half-hearted attempt.
Similarly, in editing we’ve seen some manuscripts where the protagonist could get help with their problem but won’t ask. It’s fine to have this trait as a character flaw that makes life harder for the hero. However, if the protagonist isn’t doing their best to solve a problem, they won’t get sympathy for it. The audience needs to believe the problem isn’t the hero’s fault.
Social mistreatment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Culture isn’t arbitrary and neither are the traits that are punished with ostracization. Yet judging by the stories out there, you’d think that having a freckle on the wrong side of your face would inspire bullying. To use mistreatment as a compelling problem, you must have a sufficient reason why your protagonist is being persecuted. Otherwise, it will ring false.
First, while advantages may occasionally inspire resentment from family members, they don’t provoke mistreatment from strangers. Your speed-demon superhero isn’t going to be picked on for having super speed. There are two reasons for this. First, people know advantages are cool. Second, people with advantages have power they can use against those who mistreat them. Bullies and predators look for vulnerable victims who can’t fight back.
If your protagonist is underprivileged, that is a likely reason for being mistreated. However, that can put you back in the “serious and sensitive” topic territory. It is possible to avoid that with fictional worldbuilding. In Harry Potter, Hermione faces discrimination for being muggle-born. Because this is an entirely fictional category of oppression, it avoids many issues that similar stories might have. Even with fictional oppression, you still have to be careful, because your audience will look for real-world parallels.
Instead of skipping right to social mistreatment, start by giving your protagonist a different problem. Then think critically about whether their problem would also cause social mistreatment. If it would, you can add it in.
Consider a Disadvantage or Loss
How do you find a problem that feels genuine, isn’t easy to solve, and doesn’t open a huge can of worms? I know two categories of problems that work well in most stories.
Giving your protagonist a substantial disadvantage will create a striking impression and a genuine reason for hardship. It’s also likely to make your character a target for mistreatment.
For instance, in the Codex Alera series, everyone in Calderon wields elemental magic at some level. That is, except for the main character, Tavi. Without the magic that others use to complete difficult tasks, Tavi has to come up with more ingenious methods of getting things done. Even though he’s very competent, the people close to him often treat him as though he’s weak and helpless.
You could also have a character that
- can’t read.
- is part of a reviled underclass.
- doesn’t speak the local language.
- is terrible at the family trade.
Just be aware that if the disadvantage you pick is a real-life disease or disability, you might be in the “serious and sensitive” territory.
Something terrible happened in the past, and your character is still grieving. Losses can be useful in creating character arcs and giving characters disadvantages. For instance, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the character Zuko has recently lost his status as the honored crown prince. The story of how his father unjustly cast him out is used to build sympathy for him. His arc involves letting go of his crown prince title, and his status as a fugitive from his home nation forces him to hide his bending.
Good candidates for loss are the protagonist’s parents, home, social standing, magic powers, or career.
With a loss, it’s important to show your character grieving convincingly. As I describe in my critique of Tiger’s Curse, the protagonist’s parents are dead, but she only thinks of them and their death in terms of her own inconvenience. It makes what should be a sympathetic loss feel trivial.
Build Trust in Your Character
Once you have a strong problem to work with, you’ll need to convince your audience this problem is real – not just in the mind of your viewpoint character.
In limited narration, the entire story is colored by the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. Because of this, the audience has to judge whether anything you narrate is real or character bias. When something bad happens, they might consider it objectively bad, or they might think your character is being whiny. They usually decide in a split second, without conscious thought.
A good example of an unintentionally “whiny” character is described in my critique of Twilight. Twilight opens as protagonist Bella goes to live with her father in Forks, Washington. She does this for her mother’s sake, even though she hates Forks. Once Bella arrives in Forks, readers are told how she doesn’t like fishing, dislikes the sound of the rain, and even thinks that the vegetation is “too green.” Most readers will conclude that far from being genuine issues with Forks, these complaints show that Bella is just a negative person. Instead of building sympathy, this depiction makes Bella less likable.
This trap is easy to fall into, but it’s also avoidable. A couple different techniques will help you minimize the “whiny” factor and build trust that your protagonist isn’t just complaining.
Show Their Problems
It’s difficult to account for all the ways your audience will interpret your story. Chances are that you won’t be on the same page as many of your audience members about how good or bad something is. The more you tell rather than show story problems, the more likely that your audience will feel a contradiction between what they observe and what you’re saying. As a result, the viewpoint character is often blamed for distorting reality.
For instance, let’s say your protagonist has an obnoxious roommate named Kyle. Here are three statements you could put in a first-person narration to show that:
- My roommate Kyle is so obnoxious.
- No matter how many times I ask him to stop, Kyle keeps borrowing my things and eating my food without asking.
- It had been a long day of work, but at least I had my creature comforts to go home to. But when I got home, my gaming console was gone. Kyle must have borrowed it again; I wish he’d ask me first. Okay, no games, but I still had my brie and truffles in the fridge – or I thought I did. They were gone, their crumbled wrappers strewn across Kyle’s desk.
The first statement is straight-up telling. The audience might believe that Kyle is obnoxious, or they might think the protagonist is negative. The second statement shows more, and the third shows more yet. The more you move toward the showing end of the spectrum, the more believable the problems become. And if your readers still don’t think your problem is a problem, this interpretation is less likely to detract from their reading experience.
If you can’t show why a problem is bad, it may be too small. In Twilight, no amount of showing would have made “the foliage is too green” into a sympathetic issue.
Give Your Protagonist Positive Feelings and Outlook
Even if your protagonist is suffering, they can still love and appreciate things. Showing the positive side of your character’s personality will make them more likable, build trust that they aren’t just complaining, and force you to show rather than tell the problems they are having.
Let’s compare what the same problem looks like with a negative and positive character disposition. Here’s the negative disposition:
Mara had a cake to make, but her kitchen was practically too small to move around in, much less bake something. She squeezed in and looked over her tiny mixing bowls. How was she supposed to fit all the cake batter in those? She’d have to mix the dry parts in two separate containers, and the wet parts in two separate containers, then somehow mix all those parts together without spilling everywhere. If only Mara had some decent kitchenware.
Now here’s the same passage, but the protagonist has a positive outlook:
Naya loved baking cakes. The kitchen of her studio apartment didn’t have much space for baking, so she moved the microwave, toaster, and dish rack onto her bed to make room. She arranged the ingredients and pulled out the four bowls she owned. None of her bowls were big enough to hold all the cake batter, but she could mix the dry ingredients in two, and the wet ingredients in two, and then carefully move wet to dry, then dry to wet, until it was all mixed together. Naya baked happily away, dreaming of the day she’d have an expansive kitchen and a set of new kitchenware.
In the first example, Mara appears to see everything as a terrible chore. Many readers will want her to stop complaining and just go buy a cake at the store. In the second example, we know that Naya is motivated by love and enthusiasm. We see she’s working hard to get around the constraints of her meager kitchen. If you could choose Mara or Naya to win a free set of kitchenware, who would you choose? I would choose Naya.
Because you will always see the problems you put in your story as genuine, it can be difficult to break away and look at the story as outsiders could see it. Beta readers can help you identify when your problems – or your protagonist – feel petty.
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