In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, the podcasters spoke about three prongs of engaging characters: capability, proactivity, and sympathy. I’ve spoken about Brandon Sanderson’s way of making capable characters. I haven’t spoken about proactivity much (but try-fail cycles have a lot to do with that– I’ll post about it sometime soon). Sympathy, though– I think the ‘casters really glossed over this aspect. Their point was, sympathetic characters are usually assumed, but you can make a character engaging without that sympathy by driving up the character’s capability and proactivity (think Sherlock Holmes or any antihero).
One thing Brandon Sanderson said, however, really struck me. While speaking of fixing a character problem, he said making the character feel the same thing as the reader drives up sympathy. Earlier in the episode, he defined sympathy as just how nice the character is– but I don’t think that covers it. Perhaps he’s done another podcast on this topic, but I haven’t listened to it. I started thinking about it and promptly launched a two hour impromptu speech on character emotions.
I had never really thought about sympathy before. I thought sympathy meant making the reader care for the character, but that’s only one side of it. The real definition is literal; sympathy means (and here I bring out my limited Greek experience) “common feelings”, from syn+pathos. If that’s the case, sympathy with the character means the reader having the same reactions to things as the character does– but it also goes the other way. Characters must have the same reactions as the reader would in that situation.
Brief disclaimer: that general statement above only works if you want your character to be sympathetic. There are times when you want your character to act differently than the audience would, or when you want your character to be unsympathetic. Not every character needs sympathy to work.
Imagine a character who just went through a traumatic experience (anyone from good literature, pretty much). Their dog just died or something. Instead of wallowing in grief, or even sniffling, they bounce right back up and cook a birthday cake for their friend across town. Reading this, people are going to frown and wonder what kind of a person this character is, who so callously ignores their dog’s death. But since the writer wanted to get on with their plot, they don’t have time for the emotions of the scene, and skip over it. Unfortunately, they’re also losing sympathy, common feeling.
Imagine how much stronger the scene would be if the character mourned, maybe. Or, if you’ve set up a vengeful disposition, the character swore revenge upon the villain who killed her dog. Or if her character is completely different, baking a cake might be her way of dealing with grief. Even though that might not be the reader’s response to grief, if you’ve set up the character correctly, they will put themselves in the characters shoes and understand that reaction. If they were the character, they would feel that way– that’s sympathy.
This puts a new spin on making characters seem nice. If someone betrayed the main character and they just smiled and forgave the person, sure, they’re a good person, but are they a sympathetic character? Hardly. It’s human nature to want things to be fair– you betrayed me, I get to betray you next time, or at least be mad at you for the next few days. It might not be ideal human nature, but it certainly is true. By having the character react as a normal person would in their circumstances and with their disposition, you make the character more engaging and more real.
However, this brings up an important point. How do you have the character react that way? One way is obvious– say it. After the dog dies, you have a nice little paragraph for the character’s feelings: “Susie was sad. Spot had been a nice dog. She thought it was a very bad thing that he had died.” Sure, that gets the job done, but it’s telling, not showing. How do you show common feelings?
Three ways, as far as I can tell at the moment: dialogue, actions, and character thoughts. Dialogue is easy; the dog dies and the character yells “WHY?” at the fleeing car. Or the character explodes toward the first person to comfort her. When people are angry, their barrier between thoughts and speech is weaker– things spill out. Either that, or they clam up. Either way, dialogue shows the emotion in a unique way.
Actions are another easy way to show. The character throws a rock at the car. She rushes to the dog’s side. She goes inside and bakes a cake (with proper foreshadowing of her coping methods, of course). If not something so drastic, she puts a hand to her mouth or bites her lip. Body language falls under this category.
Character thoughts are a little more difficult than the rest– it’s easier to tell with these by misunderstanding the term. “Susie was sad” is a description of her mental state, not a character thought. “No. Spot couldn’t be dead”– that’s a thought rather than a description. Go where you want with this, but be careful. (Also, for an extra challenge, try this advice for showing instead of telling through character thoughts. I’ve tried it– it’s awesome.)
Try it. See what you can do with your character, if they’re the type to utilize sympathy. Make the character act more real– or if the reader is feeling something about the events that the character isn’t exhibiting (use alpha readers for this), let the character have more of those feelings, if they’ll fit. When you know what emotions you want from the character, show those emotions instead of telling them. Dialogue and action are simple– use them. Character thoughts are more complex, but more emotional and engaging. Use them too. Practice all of it. I’m going to be doing a lot of this in my current WIP.