Sympathy Day 3- Enough of what doesn't work! What does?

Well, I can't say I know precisely, but I have a good idea. Sympathy is created when a whole, real person (I know, hard to create, and harder to know how to create one!) faces difficulties and must struggle to overcome them-- and maybe when, even when he/she doesn't want to, the character ends up doing the right thing, the moral thing, the heroic thing.

Let me revise that: ...and when, ESPECIALLY when he/she doesn't want to, the character ends up doing the right thing, the moral thing, the heroic thing.

Notice the theme there-- difficulties. struggle. doesn't want to.


Oh, yeah, that old devil conflict. We sympathize with characters in conflict.

But not always. We don't always sympathize with someone who is the victim of lots of bad things and bad people. We don't always sympathize with someone (like Hamlet) who is forever agonizing about what to do and why he's being singled out for these bad events. We don't always sympathize with a superman who faces conflicts and, one by one, handles them.

It's STRUGGLE that makes the difference. A passive victim doesn't struggle-- just suffers. 
Hamlet is so busy agonizing in his mind he doesn't have time to struggle in real life. 
Superman doesn't struggle because he's better than any conflict.

Conflict Sympathy

We sympathize with the character who experiences something we understand, or faces an obstacle we understand and -with difficulty- tries to overcome it.

Think about that. Sympathy isn't about how nice this person is. Whether we like Scarlett O'Hara or not (and we probably don't early in the book),we sympathize with her when her impassioned declaration to Ashley (and his wussy rejection of her) turns out to be overheard by, of all people, the arrogant Rhett Butler. The anguish... the embarrassment! We know just how she feels, and somehow we feel even more because our sympathy is unwilling, because we don't WANT to identify with this snotty little flirt. And we don't identify with her... that is, until something bad happens to her that we can actually imagine happening to us.

The key is-- we have to know what it's like, or be able to imagine what it's like.

But there's more. The character has to squirm. The character has to be in difficulty. The character has to care. Or we don't care.

What if Scarlett, instead of turning beet-red and wishing she could sink into a hole in the floor, had seen how cute Rhett was, and decided craftily to take advantage of this opportunity and sidled up to him and said, "Oh, kind sir, won't you please soothe my broken heart?"

No sympathy, right? There was no difficulty. That experience that we thought would be so awful for us would turn out not to be so awful to her. Again, she doesn't need our sympathy. We might sort of admire her for her resilience, but we won't sympathize.

It's much more sympathetic when she feels humiliated and miserable and wants to die. But wait! There's more! If all she did was feel miserable and slink away in humiliation, what would happen to our sympathy?


"Oh, poor Scarlett…"

It would probably become pity... mixed with a bit of contempt. That's because she wouldn't be trying to overcome. Defeat isn't sympathetic. It's pathetic.

Fortunately Scarlett is made of sterner stuff, and says furiously and famously, "You, sir, are no gentleman!" (A great exit line--unfortunately Rhett retorts, you know doubt remember, "And, you, miss, are no lady!" which makes her even more sympathetic, because she tried but failed to get the last word... and we know that deep down inside, she suspects Rhett is right.)

We admire that. She feels the humiliation, but doesn't let it defeat her. That lets us sympathize with her without condescending to her. We sympathize-- we empathize. We can imagine ourselves in a similar situation, and we can hope we wouldn't let it defeat us either.

So think about confronting your protagonist with some difficulty early in the story. It doesn't have to be a nuclear bomb. It can be something fairly trivial-- as long as we can experience, along with the character, the difficulty of it.

Christie Ridgway, who writes women's fiction novels, told me she once had a heroine who was going to do things that she didn't think the readers would approve. So she wanted the heroine to get their sympathy right away-- without making her into a saint who would never do what she was shortly going to have to do. She came up with this scenario-- the heroine is in an airplane restroom, struggling to put on pantyhose because she has a job interview at her destination. Maybe men wouldn't sympathize with that, but I defy any woman to imagine that task without feeling a pang of sympathy. Just a minor event that connects to the plot, and yeah, we're with her. We've seen her battling the odds and feeling awkward and incompetent-- and we're going to cut her some slack now. We won't judge her so harshly because, well, she's one of us.

But what if your plot doesn't allow your protagonist to be humiliated and scorned and made miserable? What if your protagonist has to perform some heroic act early? Is he doomed to appear sanctimonious and unsympathetic?

He probably will, if he strides into the situation without a qualm, if he succeeds single-handedly and without breaking a sweat.

But make him struggle, and we'll sympathize.

Make Them Struggle- And Show Them Struggling

Remember that we sympathize with struggle, with difficulty. If Ryan's a police officer and he has to climb onto that bridge over that icy river to save that suicidal jumper, make him think about it a bit. Make him a little reluctant. Maybe he takes off his new leather jacket and hands it to his partner-- "I don't want to get it wet." 

Maybe he gets up on the railing and looks down and gets dizzy. 
Maybe the jumper curses at him and he thinks, "What the heck am I doing risking my life for some guy who doesn't want my help?" 

Maybe Ryan even shrugs and starts to climb down, thinking, so jump, you jerk, and then the jumper whispers something like "Tell my mom it's not her fault," and the protagonist cusses to himself because against his will, now he's thinking about that mom who of course is going to blame herself, and so he has to get back up on that railing and try again to save the guy who doesn't want to be saved but has a mother who doesn't deserve this.

See how much more sympathetic it is if he is heroic without wanting to be? If he's scared and annoyed and even a little grumpy about it? The reluctant hero is much more sympathetic than the hero who finds heroism apiece of cake.

So forget about perfection. Forget about loading this poor guy down with a miserable past. Just give the protagonist trouble now, and make it a struggle-- and the reader can't help but sympathize.