Part 1. What turns readers off?


How do you get readers to sympathize with your story character?


Of course, readers are going to have a more powerful experience in a story if they identify and/or sympathize with a character. However, with readers, "sympathy" gets complicated and even paradoxical. The more we TRY to win readers' sympathy, often the more they resist. After all, who wants to give up your own ego and surrender to "be" someone else and experience what might be experiencing a disaster or tragedy.  We might have to sort of seduce them into it!


So I thought I'd make a 5-day email class to explore the ways to lose sympathy, and then to create it. Let's get started!

Sympathy Day 1- What turns readers off?

The reader doesn't have to sympathize with a character in your story. But if we want the readers to feel emotion, that will be easier if they can identify with the main characters and go through their terrors and travails. So a challenge we all face is how to make the protagonists sympathetic while still allowing plenty of room for growth and lots of flexibility in action. Writers realize that a perfect character has nowhere to go, no way to change, but they also learn that showing imperfection early can cause the reader to dislike the character.

You might have experienced that problem. In fact, one of the more annoying rejection reasons editors cite is "your protagonist isn't sympathetic enough." Sometimes they'll even add what they find unsympathetic... what they seldom do is give us a good idea of how to reverse the situation.

So let's talk about that. What makes a character sympathetic? Well, first, let's look at what makes a character UNsympathetic. Of course, we have to accept differences in taste-- I, for example, am one of those awful readers who pick out one little tiny aspect of a character and then despise the whole person because of it. All a hero has to do is -sneer- or -leer- or -smirk-, and I'm out of there. I've even been known to hate a character because of his/her name.

But you can't do much with a reader like me. :) I really do have to be seduced into liking a character.

Let's assume that most editors aren't as mean and picky as I am, or if they are, would say, "If your hero would just stop leering and sneering, I'd like him more." When they speak of a vague sense of un-sympathy, they generally mean something more than a few unpleasant words.

So what would make YOU find a protagonist unsympathetic in those crucial early chapters? We can dispense quickly with "cruelty to children and animals" and "boils on the face" and "a shrieking laugh", because most of us aren't inflicting those on our protagonists.

And we have to acknowledge that things like a protagonist "speaking sharply to his mother" and "being a curmudgeon" and "giggling" and "being less than good-looking" might turn off some readers, but don't disqualify a protagonist, because many wonderful protagonists overcome those "problems" and in fact are quite sympathetic.

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Un-sympathy Alerts?

So... what would turn you off a protagonist? Or what would require some seriously skilled writing to get you rooting for a protagonist ?I don't mean really BAD stuff, like murdering innocents. I mean the smaller badnesses that turn you off. 

I'll start: Whining, unless it's done with a sense of humor, like a heroine calling her best friend and announcing, "Brace yourself. I'm going to whine about that boss of mine again!" Self-pity, except maybe with a sense of humor. (I'm seeing a pattern here-- a sense of humor helps a lot.)

Snobbishness? I guess I'm thinking of being nasty to those "below" you on a social or economic scale while kowtowing to those above. "Kissing up and kicking down" will lose me every time. I wouldn't have nearly as much trouble with a protagonist who was equal-opportunity nasty (think of Jack Nicholson's character in... well, almost every film he's ever done). I don't think I'd sympathize with a character who deliberately left a small tip for a waitress, for example, after picking up the tab for his rich friend.


Your turn! Think about what event or action or dialogue in the first couple scenes of a book would make a character so unsympathetic you couldn't be seduced into sympathy? And why? What does that trait ("kissing up and kicking down," say) make this character that is irredeemable to you? Think first as a reader-- what would turn you off as a reader-- and then as a writer. How could you change that to be less of an immediate turn-off?