Creating a Sympathetic Character


Last night, on a city bus, I observed a man board who exemplified the adjective swarthy.  He spoke with an accent.  His thick black hair looked greased into place.  He wore a black satin shirt, open at the throat, a black and maroon tweedy jacket, and black pants.  Around his neck hung a delicate silver chain that held a kitschy large crystal pendant in the shape of an inverted pyramid.  This man, who stood about five feet six inches tall, swaggered to a seat across from me and one row ahead, sitting with his back resting against the bus’ side and his legs across the two seats.  He stared at me.  I observed his reflection in the window next to me.

The man talked to himself.  He kept his voice low and whispery, like dry leaves in the breeze.  From what I could hear, he spoke in an unknown language that didn’t even resemble English.  At times, his lips stretched into a knowing smile.  I was trying to figure out where he was from – he looked vaguely Oriental, or maybe East European.  The energy emanating from his was as black as his satin shirt.  He frightened me.

One of the main challenges of writing fiction is to create characters that readers will love and want to read more about.  Harry Potter.  Bella Swann.  Tom Ripley.  They need to be multi-dimensional and human, real, like the people we meet in life.  Would you want to have dinner with Hannibal Lechter?  Or Severus Snape?

The trick is to make all the characters real whether protagonists, supporting players or antagonists.  Even in plot-driven stories, it’s important to give characters more than one or two dimensions.  Readers need to want to spend time with the characters, relate to their lives, identify with them.  Even the villains.

I’ve described the man on the bus last night exactly the way I saw him and experienced his presence.  How could I make him more sympathetic?  Someone who didn’t frighten?

First, I think about people I like.  Why do I like them?  What was it like to know them?  Next, I write a list of attributes: intelligent, funny, kind, curious, friendly, passionate about something, excels at something, flawed, struggling with something.  Perhaps you could come up with even more, but let’s work with these.  For the man on the city bus, there may be only a few of these attributes that can be observed without interacting with him.  So, let’s try this:

The man boarded the bus three blocks after the main intersection in a leafy, homey residential area of the city.  He spoke with an thick accent when he respectfully asked the driver if he stopped at Target.  His thick black hair looked like a wig of artificial hair, the kind of wig someone without much money might buy to hide loss of hair due to chemotherapy.  He wore a black satin shirt, open at the throat, a black and maroon tweedy jacket, and black pants.  Around his neck hung a delicate silver chain that held a kitschy large crystal pendant in the shape of an inverted pyramid, perhaps a healing talisman the man had bought in a new age spiritual store..  This man, who stood about five feet six inches tall, swayed with the bus’ motion to a seat across from me and one row ahead, sitting with his back resting against the bus’ side and his legs across the two seats.  He smiled as he looked around the bus and nodded his head, the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes crinkling merrily.  I observed his reflection in the window next to me.

The man talked to himself.  He kept his voice low and whispery, like dry leaves in the breeze.  From what I could hear, he spoke in an unknown language that didn’t resemble English.  Single words rang out at times, and I think they were Latin, like the man was praying in Latin.  At times, his lips stretched into a knowing smile.  I was trying to figure out where he was from – he looked vaguely Oriental, or maybe East European.  The energy emanating from him was weak but warm.  He intrigued me.

Is this man now more likeable?  Revealing character or conveying character is in the details of description in the images conjured, of behavior, and of the five senses.  You get the idea?  Even with walk-on characters, it’s important to make them real through the details you choose to describe them.

James Rollins, in the November/December 2012 issue of The Writer, shared a list of seven ways to create a sympathetic character.  Use one or more in combination to give your characters life:

  1.          Character demonstrates exceptional skill at a                 profession or some other task.
  2.          Character is funny.
  3.          Character treats others well.
  4.          Character treats pets, kids and the elderly with kindness.
  5.         Character suffers or is afflicted by an undeserved misfortune.
  6.         Other characters treat the character with affection.
  7.         Character has a physical, mental, psychological or educational handicap or is a total underdog in some other way.

What kind of success have you had in creating sympathetic characters?  Share short examples in the comments section…..

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