Sympathy Day 2- What doesn't work?
Okay, so first off, let's avoid all those things that make a character unsympathetic, or at least figure out how to do it right. :) But we have to be careful! Readers can tell when they're being manipulated. To tell you the truth, I have seen writers try to MAKE a character sympathetic (done it myself, in fact!), as if you can apply "sympatheticness" with a trowel. Here are some ways I've noticed DON'T work:
1) Load the character up with a whole lot of great qualities and virtues...make him/her perfect, or as close as anyone this side of divinity can be. He's not just handsome and kind to children, he funds cancer research, climbs mountains, speaks 9 languages, wins yacht races while remaining very humble, writes thank-you notes within two minutes of receiving a gift or even a phone call, mows his elderly neighbor's lawn, has perfect teeth, can vanquish bad guys with one hand tied behind his back....
I don't know about you, but I hate this guy just in summary. I might be a really low, envious sort of person, but I don't think I can sympathize with anyone perfect. I'll save my sympathy for someone who needs it. :) Notice that this guy has nowhere to go, no way to grow. I don't need to feel any sympathetic concern that he might encounter problems, because, heck, he can handle anything, right? So perfection isn't sympathetic.
2) Putting in an unrelated incident where protagonist is kind to someone or saves someone's life or something like that. While of course, if the heroine saves someone's life in the first scene, we're going to probably think well of her, but only if we don't feel it's manipulative. And if there's no real connection to the plot, if this life-saving event doesn't lead to some plot development, we'll know that was just stuck in to manipulate us. Oddly enough, a kind or heroic action early in the book that just seems like one more in a series of wonderful acts (like "Oh, Jack! This is the 25th person you've saved from drowning this year!") will make it seem like this is nothing special, diminishing its impact.
More What Doesn't Work
3) Putting marvelling praise in the mouth of other characters doesn't work either. "Jane is so kind! Why, she mowed my lawn last summer!"
"And she brought me cookies too!"
"And she has taken in those four foster children when no one else would have them, and now they're honor students!"
I guess this doesn't work because if someone is so beloved by all, so recognized by all, then why does she need my sympathy? Also she kind of sounds like she might be doing nice things just to get approval.
4) Giving the protagonist a lot of heroic backstory. Yeah, he was a big hero in the war. Yeah, she saved a lot of lives during that epidemic. But that was then. This is now.
Backstory is just background-- the character exists right now, and what he/she does NOW is what's important. It might work if NOW he/she is burned out by all the heroics, self-doubting, feeling like an impostor... oops. Now we're getting into the fun stuff.... hang on to that thought. :)
5) Giving the protagonist miserable backstory. This is often done in order to excuse some unsympathetic behavior or attitude. Yeah, he hates women, but it's because his mother abandoned him! And his foster mother beat him! And his aunt framed him for murder! And his first girlfriend trapped him into marriage by getting pregnant! And...
While we want to sympathize with the characters, we don't want them to be victims so battered by past events that they don't actually live in the present. There's also that "authenticity" problem. If we lose the sense that this is a whole person, if we think the author just layered all these past traumas on, we won't believe in the protagonist.
I just read a book where the hero was SO good and the villains SO bad, and the hero was so badly treated by the evil villain (his wife :) that I couldn't quite believe it. (Plus the author had this tendency to exaggerate the minor little physical problems of being human to major flaws in villains-- the divorce lawyer had "a greasy face" and the ex-wife was always thrusting her mismatched silicone breasts out and such. The hero was radiantly pure, of course. Never sweated even. <G> )
So what else doesn't work? Let's bring it all out. What have you read that's patently an attempt to make a character sympathetic... and doesn't work?