How to Create Powerful, Sympathetic Characters


Creating sympathetic characters does not need to be mysterious. This week we’ll look a couple of unlikely sympathetic characters. And I’ll give you an easy, three-step technique you can use to build sympathy into your own characters.

Sympathetic characters are critical to a good story. That is, the audience must sympathize with your protagonist, must root for him, must want him to succeed. But if you ask three different writers how to create sympathy for /your/ characters, you’ll get 30 different answers. And you quickly conclude that before you get the real answer, you have to undergo some secret rite involving flaming coals and a billy-goat.

An unsympathetic character

Here’s a scene:

Nick carried the bottle of vodka up the stairs to his apartment. He could already hear the sounds of football on TV and of Keri entertaining his friends inside.

The outside kitchen door never opened smoothly. He wrestled with the lock, and let out a sharp “F” and “S” before hitting and kicking the door three or four times. He never counted how many. Keri undid the deadbolt, and he just missed whacking her in the face as she opened the door.

His friends greeted him with a hearty, “Hey! Nick!”

“Hey!” he exclaimed. “Gonna party!” He waved the bottle of vodka through the air.

Several collective grunts later, he set the vodka on the counter and got some glasses out of the cabinet.

“I’m gonna take off,” Keri said.

“No!” His voice was eager. “You can’t go. The party’s just starting!”

“Really, I think I should go.”

As she turned, he grabbed her arm and squeezed. His face was hard and his teeth clenched.

“Stay,” he ordered. “You gotta stay.”

Her mouth was perfectly straight. She gazed directly at him. With measured tones, she intoned, “Okay. I’ll stay.”

Nick is not a very sympathetic character. If he dropped dead in the next scene, we probably wouldn’t care. We’re sympathizing more with Keri than with Nick. But in a bit, I’ll show you how to make Nick a sympathetic character. In fact, everything needed to do this is already established in the snippet above.

Who cares about sympathy?

It’s very important to have a protagonist the audience can identify with. This is true even the protagonist is generally unlikeable, an anti-hero, or some other sort of hero one wouldn’t normally sympathize with.

Now, you don’t want a protagonist who has no flaws. Perfect protagnosts are boring and unsympathetic. We need a flawed human being, who faces struggles, as our hero. And you also don’t want characters that have nothing out-of-the-ordinary about them. You want rich characters, with new and different characteristics, people the audience has not met before.

But at the same time, the audience must be able to root for the protagonist, to get on his side.

The Godfather Video Game

You’ve been accepted into America’s most famous criminal organization. Carry out orders, earn respect, rise through the ranks, and make New York City your own. You could even be running everything as the next, and most powerful, Don. For PS2. Preorder for release on March 21, 2006. Also available for X-Box 360 and for Windows.

The Godfather

Don Corleone, from The Godfather, is a protagonist you normally wouldn’t identify with. But from the first scene, we begin to sympathize with him.

In the first scene we learn Don Carlione is a powerful man, can obtain justice even when the law can’t, but people fear him, fear to be involved with him, fear they will get in trouble through their connection with him. He also values friendship and respect over money. He won’t be a mercenary, but is willing to give justice as a gift to a friend. He is careful about what he says, realizes there are people in the world who would have him arrested if they could. He is more concerned with making friends than with being right. He has a daughter, and she’s getting married. And he loves his family, even his son Michael, who is late for the wedding.

Then, we’re introduced to the first threat, the FBI snooping around outside the walls, taking down license plate numbers.

Inappropriate Behavior

The short story Inappropriate Behavior by Pat Murphy has another excellent protagonist you wouldn’t expect to be sympathetic. Her main character Annie is a very strange child, yet we feel for her and quickly get on her side.

Three steps to sympathy

Here are three steps you can take to make your characters sympathetic:

  1. Give your character a noble cause to pursue.
  2. Put some obstacle, either internal or external, in his way.
  3. Give him a great love or passion, a humanizing element.

If you do these three, you can make almost any character sympathetic. And if you avoid them, you can make almost any character unsympathetic.

In the stories above

In Inappropriate Behavior, we see these three things, and develop sympathy for Annie:

  1. A noble cause: To aid and rescue a shipwrecked man on the island.
  2. An obstacle: The mechano can only do so much, and the other people in Annie’s life are too busy making demands on her to listen to her.
  3. A great love: Her mother telling stories to her was very special, and we get the sense that she loves her mother.

Similarly in The Godfather:

  1. A noble cause: Don Corleone is being asked to exact justice for a horrible crime.
  2. An obstacle: He can’t be a mercenary, and he can’t be connected directly with an illegal act.
  3. A great love: He loves his family.

As a result, we see him as just an ordinary guy who happens to have great wealth and power and is an underworld king-pin. Seriously.

What do we do with Nick?

Let’s add a part to the above scene with Nick that makes him sympathetic. What if his party attitude is really just a cover for the emptiness underneath? What if he feels sad and sees that he does things to make the people around him sad? And what if he wants to fix this, especially as pertains to his girlfriend Keri, but his attempts are unsuccessful?

  1. A noble cause: He regrets his behavior and wants it to stop.
  2. An obstacle: He can’t seem to control himself. (We don’t know yet the details or how he will conquer this issue.)
  3. A great love: He loves his girlfriend Keri.

Let’s write the next part of the scene:

Nick released his grip, and Keri returned to the living room, where the boys were watching football.

Nick poured some vodka into a glass and swallowed. He gazed for a long time at the open cabinet. He swallowed again, a dry gulp.

“Hey! What you doin’ in there?!” Nick’s friends were getting itchy.

Keri walked up to him, gentleness and caution in her demeanor.

“Nick? Can I help?”

He did not look at her. “Why don’t you take off? I can take care of these guys.”

“Okay.” She picked up her purse and jacket and left.

“Hey! Nick!”

He grabbed the glasses with one hand, the bottle with the other. A smile stretched across his face.

“Here’s the party!” he shouted.

In the scenes that follow, we need to build hope. We need to have Nick try to find happiness and fulfillment, but only make things worse and worse, until finally he finds the answer.


2 responses to “How to Create Powerful, Sympathetic Characters”

  1. […] Tim King escreveu no seu podcast Be The Story um artigo sobre três coisas que podem aumentar a simpatia das personagens, especialmente dos protagonistas. […]

  2. sass Avatar

    Thanks! That’s pretty helpful.

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