How to Make a Character Sympathetic in 15 Seconds

Walk-on characters are the best.  The balloon seller who gives a toddler a balloon, cracks a joke, then disappears from the main character’s life forever. The coworker who says something weird that makes the main character realize something really important. The mailman who drives past the camera sporting a fluorescent purple mustache.

Well, maybe not that last one, since he’s not even a walk-on– he’s just a weird person who may not have even been paid for his contribution to society.  But the first two, along with the thousands of other characters who appear in stories without staying long enough to become side characters, those are walk-ons, and they are amazing.

However, there are a few kinds of walk-ons.  It is the privilege of some to literally walk on and off the set, perhaps with a quip or a meaningful something or other in there.  Others merely stand there as promises to explain potential awesomeness later in the story.  And others– and these are the best– die.

Star Trek’s red shirts!  Fringe’s test subjects!  The first people you see in any given cop show, who then are shot or robbed or abducted or something like that, making for an interesting mystery for the main characters to unravel.  Those are the best walk-ons, in my opinion.

And am I wrong?  Sure, they die, but look at it as a writer, not as an audience, for just a moment.  The writers pack an enormous amount of awesomeness into every single red shirt or throwaway character.

Take a look at them for a moment.  What happens when one of those characters walk on?  No one knows who they are yet– they’re blank slates.  The writers have about thirty seconds to make us like them, but after that, we’re going to dismiss them as relatively unimportant.  If the deaths of these characters are supposed to have any sort of impact, the last thing the writer wants is for the audience to dismiss them.

So what do the writers do instead?  They have ten seconds to make us like them.  What happens?

Well, they make us like them.  But how do they do it?  If you look at a lot of these walk-ons, you start to notice a pattern.  They all have a few seconds before their demise, but what do they do?  Many of them interact with children.

What good are children, and why do writers, those monsters, make us watch doomed people talk to children before they die in unnatural ways?

You’ve guessed by now, I’m sure: children make the characters sympathetic.  The way they act when they’re around little people determines whether we respect or dislike them in our first (and last) encounter with them.  Do they smile and please the children?  This is an angel of a man, who shouldn’t deserve anything bad to befall him!  (And then something does.)  Do they ignore the children, or be mean to them?  What a terrible person.  They’re obviously the villain– kick him in the shin or something.

It’s amazing how much of an effect such a small thing can have, isn’t it?  Children are humanity’s greatest treasure, and showing how people interact with them shows more about their personality than anything else they do.  It’s a classic example of showing instead of telling, and it’s beautiful when done correctly.

Of course, this automatically raises your evil status as a writer; to kill a character is one thing, but to kill one who just smiled at a baby is a criminal act.  Just hope the readers don’t find out where you live.

(Bonus question: since characters interact with children before they die, does this mean children are the real killers in all these shows?  Have we just stumbled upon a great mystery of humankind?  I’ll leave it to you to decide.  You’ll probably say no, because children are humanity’s greatest treasure.  Your choice.)

But, as with all things, this can be used for good or evil.  Evil: killing characters.  Good: making people like characters without making them die.  Commercials have to do this constantly.  Why would you buy a product used by someone who hates babies?  (In fact, they use this to slight their competitors.)  Have the subject of the commercial be someone who wants only their infant’s health, and suddenly the product seems like a very wise purchase.  It’s a trick people use all the time for quick likability.

Of course, this can go too far.  For instance, in longer stories (basically, if you’re following this character for more than a minute), you can’t just make the character likable on whether or not they’re good with kids.  It’s going to need more than that.  Walk-on characters are allowed to seem perfect for their short lives, but main characters or true side characters have to seem a little bit deeper than just that.  (However, John Grisham uses this technique expertly on his main character in The Racketeer, so it can definitely be done, but don’t put all your trust in it.)

If you’re having someone die an important death, or perhaps a quick one offstage, try showing them interact with a child beforehand.  Even if it’s a longstanding character who the audience already likes, reaffirm the audience’s affection with this technique (as long as it’s in character).  It’s a brilliant way to create sympathy quickly, and it’s amazing when it’s pulled off correctly.

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56 thoughts on “How to Make a Character Sympathetic in 15 Seconds

  1. Dang! I forgot the child in mine!

    Yes, I do open with a murder, but there was no child around to smile at or interact with. However, I think I got away with it. 😀

    It is a good point you raise – an adult interacting positively with a child makes that adult “okay and just like us” on a subconscious level, and getting a connection in right up front is important. Cheers!

  2. Now, whether the writers of Despicable me failed or not when they tried this is unknown. . Look at the beginning of Despicable Me– Gru walks up to a kid whose ice cream has fallen on the ground and hands the kid a balloon dog (AWWW!). Then Gru pops the balloon leaving the kid stunned. And possibly the audience is a bit stunned, too. This gets back to your point of this technique might not work for main characters. I’m sure they did the thing with the kid’s balloon to illustrate how awful Gru is. But then they had to make us like him…

    Not entirely sure where I’m going with this… this is just what I thought of about adults being mean to kids. A ramble…

    1. Interesting post Liam.

      Come to think of it, Robyn, doesn’t Gru example sort of represent a trend? I mean there are a lot of less than likeable characters (maybe not villains) who at first appear very mean-spirited by virtue of their brusqueness or whatever towards children, but who eventually come round to seeming much nicer. Take Elenor from *Inkheart*, or Mrs Windemere from *Okay for Now* (by Gary Schimdt), or so many other characters (though examples are currently not coming to mind).

      It seems to me that a character’s attitudes towards children can be used to set them up very quickly either as a nice or as a not-nice character, but that doesn’t take away from their potential for development either direction.

  3. I wonder how successful I’d be with this concept. I’m so awkward around kids. Maybe if they interact with puppies…hmm…

      1. True. True.

        Out of curiosity’s sake, though, shouldn’t this work with anything that an audience feels sympathetic towards. Like puppies or kittens? It’s a well-known fact that it’s more painful when a dog dies in a movie than a person. So it could work with children, pets, kindly old people…right?

      2. Oh, hey, another question. You refer to this book about writing tips…I don’t remember the name. You’ve mentioned it in several posts and every time I see the name I think of buying it. What is it called?

        (I hope I’m not being too vague…)

        Thanks!

      1. Oh, and it’s an added bonus if it’s adding suspense–for example, if some character is on the run from the bad guy, but stops to help a dog caught on the fence, or a kid who’s lost their mom.

      2. Well… that’s a little bit annoying, don’t you think? “Oh, no, there are explosions behind me! Wait, what? There’s a kid in trouble? I’LL SAVE YOU!” Sure, it’s endearing, but the character is a little stupid.

      3. I know. It makes me want to yell at characters every time they do it.

        But I suppose it does help with suspense, even if it is rather annoying.

  4. In an upcoming novel I hope to start during the holidays, I’ve actually got a character who interacts all the time with little kids. There’s a young woman, Mary Ann Etta, who runs a daycare center and adores kids and just loves people in general The fun thing about her is that she also has a not so good side–she’s dapples in voodoo magic and controls people with marionettes. And she teaches the kids how to use them.
    After reading this, I’m having serious thoughts about bumping her off. Mwahaha. Argh the temptation is so good. XD
    I seriously must do this thing in a book. It’s brilliant! 😀

  5. And this would be why you gave Christopher in the last PP episode children.

    Interesting concept. It would work with people who are kind to the elderly, disabled, and animals, too, I should think. I don’t kill anyone in my WIP (I cut the one death because it was pointless/unnecessary) but I will keep this in mind for the future.

    1. Yes, pretty much, although they were going for the shock of Anakin’s betrayal at that point, showing him killing children. But you’re right, that’s why they did it. (I didn’t notice that until now.)

  6. I was reading an excerpt of a book about the Mary Tyler Moore Show which talked about how the pilot flopped the first time they did it. When they re-vamped the pilot, they kept most of it the same, but added that the landlady’s daughter liked Rhoda – suddenly, Rhoda became likable, and the show got better reception.
    A kid can make a huge difference.

  7. I recently came across a counter example to this in an episode of Psych in which the walk-on characters were made unlikable in 15 seconds.

    Context of the episode: A random guy walks into the Psych office (psychic detective) and asks the MCs to lock him up because he thinks he’s turning into a werewolf and killed a lamb and he doesn’t want to harm anyone else, especially his sister. That night, the scene switches to two hunters in the woods who are stalking a fawn, and they say something like “Let’s send Bambi back to Mama” and point their guns at it. But before they can pull the trigger, they are attacked by a beast of some kind that you don’t really see. The next day, the cops find them ripped to shreds.

    Now, threatening the fawn makes them unlikable, and I have to wonder if the writers did that on purpose, because at that point in the story the prime suspect is a character you are supposed to like. (Though you’re only ten minutes into the episode and he’s the prime suspect so of course he didn’t do it.) You don’t want the nice guy that thinks he’s a werewolf to be the one who did it, and they soften the blow of a death that gets pinned on him by making it the death of someone unlikable. Though, it would really have wracked the tension up if the murderer had killed someone likable. You’d (in theory) be begging that the werewolf guy didn’t do it.

    1. Hmm. That’s actually pretty smart, as long as the later deaths in the episode have their victims gradually rising in sympathy. (I hope there were other deaths.) You’re right– as an establishing kill, they made the main character more likable than his victims to keep you on his side. That was wise.

      1. There weren’t any other deaths. Just the “That’s who the murderer is, and this is his motive and this is his next victim! Oh, no! She’s walking alone at night and we must go save/warn her!” at the end.

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