Sympathy is probably the easiest and most flexible way to get your audience more attached to a character. Even better, it can work not just for heroes, but for villains, too. But that doesn’t make it a shoe-in. Like any storytelling strategy, attempts at sympathy can come across as contrived or simply fail to land. Let’s look at what it takes to make your character stand out as sympathetic.
What Sympathy Requires
Sympathy is our way of trying to create fairness in a world that is inherently unfair. We want deserving people to do well. When they don’t, we feel for them. What’s more, we start rooting for them to make lemonade from the lemons they’ve been given. In storytelling terms, this means the character has good karma.
The goal of making a character sympathetic is for the audience to feel that sense of unfairness and become emotionally invested in the character’s welfare. To create that, you’ll first need to understand what situations qualify as unfair to most audiences.
Foremost, what causes the character’s hardship matters a great deal.
- A character shouldn’t have committed a misdeed that landed them in their tough position – usually. If the character’s bad behavior is minor or feels distant, perhaps appearing in their backstory, and their punishment is harsh and long-lasting, you may still be able to generate sympathy for them. But the consequences have to feel disproportionate to what they did, rather than feeling like the natural result of their bad choices.
- A character can also receive sympathy if they do good deeds that result in hardships. Perhaps they were punished for standing up to an antagonist or they made an intentional sacrifice for the sake of someone else. However, the character’s actions must still feel necessary and wise. A character who recklessly challenges someone more powerful than they are or appears to have a martyr complex may not gain sympathy.
- A character that tries their best and still falls short will feel sympathetic. If they didn’t make any bad choices, they don’t deserve to suffer. This means that if your character goes to magic school but ends up being terrible at magic, they’ll get sympathy. On the other hand, if they’re terrible but they aren’t studying, that will take the sympathy away.
- Naturally, random misfortune that has nothing to do with any of the character’s actions will be sympathetic.
Beyond whether or not they make bad choices, a character must also be negatively impacted by their hardships. Characters that laugh punishments off and continue as before won’t be sympathetic. This means if you’re writing a spirited character, you may need to give them a more vulnerable side. A protagonist that doesn’t care about something gives the audience no reason to care about it either.
Last, if your character has a lot of unearned success, that will cancel out their hardships. You’ll have a tough time making a candied character sympathetic.
Creating Sympathy With a Premise
Story elements make a bigger impression when they have ongoing influence on the story instead of popping in to say hello once in a while. So, the most powerful way to create sympathy is to put your character in an unfair position that affects them for the entire story.
- Your character might be the indentured servant of an evil villain. They’re constantly put in the position of trying to mitigate the harm the villain is doing without getting caught and killed.
- Your character turns into a dangerous monster every night from sunset until dawn. While they’ve found a place to lock themself away, the limitation means they have trouble making ends meet and are afraid to get close to anyone.
- Your character is the descendant of a previous royal family that was overthrown. While the current monarch graciously left the character alive, they’ve been branded as an outcast, and everyone is required to shun them.
Keep in mind that any premise must be brought to life with the smaller storytelling choices you make. If you gloss over a character’s problems and focus on other things, you could lose the sympathy of the premise.
Shoring Up Sympathy Where You Can
If your story’s already been drafted or outlined, using a premise to add sympathy may not be feasible. Below are some methods for adding sympathy without large changes.
- Create a tragic backstory. When creating a tragic backstory, you don’t have to go straight for murdered parents. Perhaps your character had to go on the run and adopt a new identity, or maybe they failed an important task and were shunned by their family.
- Reduce their skills. A character that has trouble keeping up or doesn’t possess the same amazing abilities as the people around them will come off as more sympathetic. They can also fail some tasks. Just remember that a member of Team Good still needs to be a net positive for the team, and if they could be easily swapped out for a more qualified person, they aren’t actually a net positive.
- Lower their social status. Characters can get lots of sympathy if other people aren’t treating them with respect. This can come in a variety of forms. They could be frequently dismissed or overlooked, treated with condescension, or treated with hostility. Perhaps the character is isolated and lonely, and they have trouble making friends for whatever reason.
- Put them in poverty. Poverty doesn’t always make a great sympathetic premise; heroes usually gain enough power to get out of it. However, it makes a great supplement, particularly at the beginning. Just ask how a lack of funds places limitations on your character. What do they need that they can’t afford? How does it make their life harder?
- Give them weaknesses and limitations. Your character might be afraid of heights, have to stay within a certain range of their power source, or be under a spell that prevents them from engaging in violence – even in defense. Just be aware that if you use a disability, a type of neurodivergence, or something that appears analogous to either, you’ll want to be careful that your depiction is respectful to the real people you’re representing. More on that below.
The best choice is something that’s easy and practical for you to work into your story. The more scenes in which it becomes relevant, the better. Since many sympathetic traits are problems, it’s also likely that adding sympathetic traits will create a character arc or perhaps a subplot. Ask yourself if you’re creating a new hook that will need a resolution of some kind.
Ways to Make Leaders Sympathetic
Sometimes the main character needs to be a leader, simply because, in some situations, only leaders have enough agency to change the outcome of events. But leaders inherently have power, which makes sympathy tougher to create. And if you make the character struggle too much, they could come across as undeserving of their position and, therefore, mediocre.
However, it’s still possible to make your leader character sympathetic:
- Give them a responsibility no one wants. Perhaps the group, institution, or organization is a complete mess that requires lots of money, offers little in return, and is a big liability when it comes to lawsuits or outright disasters. In this case, anyone who accepts a leadership position is likely to be blamed when this already-sinking ship goes underwater. No one with real power will want the position, but maybe your character is forced into it and given a mandate to somehow make the ship fly.
- Make their bosses have it out for them. A leader can end up on the bad side of their bosses or superior officers for many reasons. Maybe the leader made powerful people look bad or refused to carry out unethical orders. Then a nefarious boss might set them up to fail – perhaps sending them on a mission they aren’t expected to return from.
- Promote them before they’re ready. Your character is rushed into a leadership position before they have the experience and mentorship they’re supposed to receive, but they still have the qualities needed for a leader. Perhaps after their commanding officer dies, they get a sudden field promotion. Lacking the confidence that comes with experience, they might second-guess themself or be too timid to insist their orders are followed. However, these are growing pains that the character should overcome given a little time.
These tactics can often be adapted to work for other characters with power. This is why most chosen ones with special powers are unready and have an unenviable task ahead. It doesn’t ensure a character is sympathetic, but it certainly helps.
What to Avoid
Some real-world sources of sympathy have to be handled with care and are best avoided if you lack familiarity.
Sloppy Use of Oppression
Oppression and marginalization are an abundant source of unfair problems for people in the real world, so it’s natural that storytellers want to use that in their stories. However, many of these depictions aren’t good. Storytellers without much experience with oppression often exaggerate it, and this denies marginalized audiences their fun escapism and makes them feel exploited.
This doesn’t mean we should never depict oppression in our stories, but, right now, we’re depicting oppression too much. So, if you want to use oppression for sympathy, here are my recommendations.
- Only put oppression in your story if you are prepared to address it. In other words, if you put oppression in your fictional world, your protagonists should be struggling against that oppression, not standing on the sidelines. If you just want a gritty atmosphere, you can use other real-world problems to do that.
- Do not depict any type of real-world oppression that you have not personally experienced. So, if you’re a cis man, please don’t put sexism in your story. Generally, fantastical forms of oppression are less sensitive and therefore easier to depict. Even then, watch out for real-world parallels. The only person without magic in a world of magic people will feel like a disabled character.
That said, there may be some real-world historical settings that require you to acknowledge past injustice. If you think you’re in that position and it’s not your own people who were hurt in that place and time, you’ll need a sensitivity consultant to help you.
Stigmatizing Depictions of Disability
Storytellers have often used various forms of disability or neurodivergence as a source of sympathy. This is not automatically bad. People with disabilities or neurodivergent traits are sometimes in sympathetic positions, particularly since they are subject to oppression just like other marginalized groups. A respectful and accurate depiction may generate some sympathy. For instance, Stiles from Teen Wolf canonically has ADHD, and viewers occasionally see him struggle to sleep or receive annoyed comments from his teachers.
However, if your goal is to generate sympathy rather than to represent people respectfully, your depiction will probably be harmful. Many stereotypes about disability involve negative exaggeration of what it’s like to be disabled. If you’re emphasizing hardships, you’ll fall right into those stereotypes.
For instance, the character Hester from Mortal Engines has a prior injury that, in the book, blinded her on one side. She also has a large scar, and part of her nose is gone. To create sympathy for her, people in the book constantly call her ugly and ruder terms. Hester even thinks she’s unworthy of love because of her appearance. While author Phillip Reeve no doubt meant this to be part of an uplifting message about the importance of personality over beauty, consider what it implies about all the real people who have facial marks or scars. Reeve is calling them ugly.
If your story features any character that mistreats someone under their power on an ongoing or intermittent basis, you are probably depicting abuse. For instance, in Harry Potter, both the Dursleys and Snape are abusive.
Abuse is a very serious real-world issue, but storytellers often treat it like the abuser is just being a little unkind. This completely distorts the depiction, excusing abuse and placing the burden of fixing injustice on survivors.
If you have one character mistreating another and you didn’t intend to depict a sensitive real-world issue, take it out or tone it way, way down. Use something else for sympathy.
Like any powerful storytelling tactic, it’s inevitable that storytellers will try to create sympathy in ways that feel forced or even laughably unrealistic. This might happen because the storyteller doesn’t actually want to give their character problems or weaknesses, because they don’t have a lot of time to spend on building sympathy or just because they’re struggling to fit all the various aspects of their story together smoothly.
Signs of contrived sympathy include:
- Last-minute backstory dumps, in which a storyteller tries to make an underdeveloped character sympathetic right before they matter to the plot. Often, this happens before a side character dies.
- Random aggro from strangers who suddenly appear to beat characters up. Bullying scenes in many works for young adults fall into this category.
- Pretending characters have problems or hardships they don’t really have. For this one, I have a full article on what problems are sympathetic. Treating superpowered or magical characters like they’re oppressed falls into this category. Hester in the Mortal Engines movie also qualifies, since thinking of her as ugly requires an extreme stretch of the imagination.
The earlier you start thinking about sympathy, the less likely you’ll feel like you have to pull a rabbit out of your hat later. Then, just be genuine. Instead of inflating the tiny problems of your character’s normal life, do the revisions necessary to give them real problems.
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