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Sympathy Day 4 --  What really works?

We sympathize more with characters who have to WORK to be good, when we see the effort involved. For example, let's take two scenarios, Saint Joe and Rascal Tom:

Scenario 1. 
Joe is in his tux, on his way with a friend to a big gala where he's going to sit at a table with a Big Venture Capitalist who could fund company. (Okay, maybe his wireless pizza delivery service. ;)He's got to make a good impression on BVC. But on the way, he passes a car disabled by the side of the road. A little old lady is standing there looking helpless.

Immediately he pulls over, gets out, cheerily informs her that he'll take care of it, pops the hood, finds the problem. She protests that he'll get oil on his suit, and he says no problem! He strips off the coat, covers his shirt with the handy bath towel he keeps in the car for just such occasions, and in a few minutes has fixed the problem and has only a little spot of oil on his hands, which he wipes off with the handy towel.

The old lady thanks him profusely, and he laughingly dismisses her attempt to give him some money, and won't even tell her his name so that she can send him a thank-you note. When she tries to give him her card so that he can come to her house for a gift, he refuses-- "I didn't help you because I wanted a gift. I helped you because it was the right thing to do." Then he stays to make sure that the car starts and she's able to get going, and even follows her to the exit ramp in case something goes wrong. 

Alas, he gets to the gala a trifle late, but his friend is right there, telling the BVC, "Joe stopped to help a little old lady whose car broke down. That's the THIRD little old lady Joe has helped this week!" The BVC gets a tear in his eye, and says, "You know, my beloved grandmother's car broke down last week, and no one stopped to help her for hours, and .... Young man, I like your style! Here's $20 million!"

Scenario 2. 
Tom is in his tux, on his way with a friend to a big gala where he's going to sit at a table with a Big Venture Capitalist who could fund his company or his wireless pizza delivery company. He's got to make a good impression on BVC. But on the way, he passes a car disabled by the side of the road. A little old lady is standing there looking helpless.

Tom drives past. Friend says, "Did you see that little old lady?" Yeah, yeah, Tom says. Here's the cell phone. Call a tow truck for her. We're going to be late if I don't step on it. Cell phone battery is dead, however. Tom curses, and then, angry at his own weakness, yanks the car around and drives back to her. Of course, this turns out to be more difficult than he imagined, because the car is on the other side of the highway, and it will take him another 8 minutes to get there, and all the time, the friend is saying, "You know, we're going to be late. And this is so unlike you. I mean, there's money at stake, and you're stopping to help someone? Ha, ha, wait till I tell the guys at the office about this!"

Tom cusses him out. As he passes the car (it's on the other side of the highway, I mean) he's thinking this is stupid, he'll just wait till he gets to the gala and call from there, and then, a gorgeous young woman emerges from the car. She seems to have just awakened from a sound sleep and looks lusciously drowsy as she joins her elderly friend/relative by the side of the car. Hmmm. Tom decides maybe he'll be a good Samaritan after all. After all, it's dangerous, two ladies there on the shoulder with the cars whizzing by.... :)

So he pulls over, thinking that he'll get friend to do the work while he chats up the pretty sleepyhead. But friend resolutely refuses even to get out of the car. He knows nothing about engines, he says, and Tom is the engineer, after all.

Grumbling, Tom gets out of the car, and tells the little old lady that he'll look under the hood, but not to expect anything. He manages to keep from growling that she ought to get a cell phone and AAA insurance, but doesn't manage to keep himself from turning a more interested gaze on her young companion. He opens the hood and finds his worst fears are realized. The engine is old and filthy. Muttering to himself, he takes off the coat and hands it back to the pretty girl, who doesn't realize what he's doing and doesn't take it, and it drops onto the muddy shoulder. She picks it up and beats the mud out, apologizing, but the damage has been done-- it looks pretty bad. He also gets oil on his white shirt. But he fixes the problem and slams the hood down.

Scenario 2 continued- Struggle

The little old lady begs him to take the $20, but he refuses, thinking that he just ought to send her the dry-cleaning bills instead. But she seems like she's about to cry, and he can't stand it when women cry, and she sort of looks like his grandmother, and so he manages a smile when she hands him her card and asks him to come by Sunday for tea so she can thank him properly. 

Sleepyhead has awakened completely by now and says something like, now, granny, he's probably very busy, and besides, you know it's not really safe to give out your address to people you don't know, and he thinks, wait a minute! I just ruined my shirt for you, and this is the thanks I get? I don't see YOU getting down there in the engine. Oh, no, you're too ladylike for that! But all he does is give her a cold smile and say, "I'm safe enough, but now I'm late, so let's get going."

He is about to drive off, but hears their car sputtering, and so, annoyed, he pulls over till they get it started, and he follows them to the next exit. By the time he gets to the gala, they're halfway through dinner, and the BVC is mad: "You want me to fund you when you show up late and dissheveled?" The friend explains about the little old lady, and the BVC says, a likely story. "Why not just admit that you're a loser instead of trying to pretend you were out helping people?" And he gets up and leaves without giving Tom any funding.

Tom is in despair. He reaches into his pocket to find the card of the little old lady, so he can rip it to shreds, but first glances at it and realizes that the little old lady is actually Mayzie Bigelow, the eccentric billionaire who wears old clothes and drives old cars but has zillions in the bank! And she's invited him to tea... thoughtfully he returns the card to his pocket and gets up and leaves.

Your choice!

Okay, which guy is more sympathetic? Joe #1 does the right thing cheerfully and invariably and it works out wonderfully for him. Tom #2 is grumpy and annoyed and doesn't do the right thing all the time but does the right thing now, if for the wrong reason, and suffers for it, and in the end finds that maybe it's led him to another direction.

I think Tom #2 is a lot more fun. For one thing, his stopping to help actually influences the plot-- changes it in a way. It causes him conflict, and then gives him a new opportunity.

With Joe #1, nothing he does really disrupts his life, and that's to be expected, because he's USED to doing good works. The good work doesn't really change much (the BVC gives him money, but might have anyway) and causes no conflict. He's always doing good works, so this doesn't show any progression or change within him. He's a good guy being good. He's displaying who he is, but not BECOMING anything. It's character display, not character development.

With Tom #2, it's clear that this ISN'T who he is-- he's not benevolent generally. It's only this special set of circumstances, this particular moment, that inspires him to do good. Not that he's a rotten guy, because he does have an instinctive sympathy. But he tries first to take the easy way out (calling for a tow) and only then does he do something that actually puts him out (and he regards that as something of a weakness).

With Joe #1, it all goes well, swimmingly, in fact. Every potential problem that comes up, he deals with. In fact, it's so easy for him, it's hard to see his action as heroic. He's Superman. This is all in a day's work.

With Tom #2, it's not easy. It's hard. And the deeper he gets into it, the more trouble it is. Conflict. Much as he grumbles, we realize he's actually doing MORE than Superman, because it's harder for him.

With Joe #1, he's too good to take advantage of any of this. I admire that, but I don't identify with it!

With Tom #2, he thinks he might as well take advantage of it. After all, she offered her card, and wanted to thank him... and besides, there's that pretty, wary granddaughter of hers. He has to prove to her that he's not an axe murderer.

Character = Change

When you think back to your own reading inclinations, what you might discover is that character development depends on these particular circumstances causing a CHANGE in behavior. If your character already supports a dozen orphans, then her taking care of one during the book is not only effortless (she's got the whole system set up already), but also, in a way, nothing special. She always does that. All you'll end up doing is showing that she's a wonderful, charitable person-- and always has been.

Consider what would happen if she has no history of supporting orphans, and she's in the middle of an important project when this orphan kid shows up. It's a catastrophe, a conflict, not just the latest in a long line of orphans she has helped, but a problem she doesn't know how to solve, but has to solve anyway. In other words, dealing with this orphan makes her grow, in compassion or empathy or generosity-- doesn't just display those virtues for all to see. <G>

And if she's embarrassed and mad at herself for doing the right thing, if she's not sure it's the right thing, and if doing it gets him into trouble, all the better.

What do you think? I think a bit of curmudgeonly spirit, when coupled with good actions, really does increase the sympathy factor.

Why not try that with your own characters? In a scene where she's faced with the choice to do the right thing, experiment. Create some conflict. Write her reluctance. Let her struggle. Punish her instead of rewarding her for doing what she ought to do. 

It's the struggle we sympathize with. Can you help her to struggle? It's for her own good, after all.