Do readers sympathize with your characters, or do they pity them? Do they have hopes and desires, or are they mired in despair? Some submissions we’ve received in the last few weeks have me thinking about the differences.
Creative writing instructors are fond of telling students that character sympathy is critical to the reader’s engagement with a story. Sympathy implies that the reader understands the character’s situation. Typically it’s a desire yet unfulfilled, or a problem the character needs to solve. In other words, there must be something about the character’s existence that the reader can identify with, and by identifying can then judge the decisions the character ultimately makes.
Pity is closer to compassion, and often means to feel sorry for someone. But in fiction it doesn’t necessarily mean identification with the character’s situation. In thinking about it, I can’t help remembering those TV commercials in which abused pets stare longingly into the camera, or the ones filled with images of critically sick children. The feeling that I get while watching is not one of sympathy, it’s one of sorrow coupled with guilt—shouldn’t I do something about this, and if I am doing something is it enough? We have to remember that these ads, as emotional as they are, are part of a marketing campaign designed to raise funds for the cause. The goal is different from what we’re trying to accomplish in fiction. Even the most touching, deeply emotional fictional story is still a form of entertainment, and that’s why getting the reader to identify with a protagonist is important to its success—readers should like (or at least understand) and root for the protagonist.
The sympathy we seek to establish in fiction is connected to a variety of elements in a story, such as forward momentum, rising tension, and a climax and resolution. That last one implies that a character will have a realization* and will have to make a decision to move forward incorporating it.
Decision making implies hope for a better future—I don’t know too many characters, or people in general, who make decisions designed to make things worse for themselves. And that hope is also important to the success of your story. People usually want things to work out in their lives. In order for them to identify with your characters, then your characters should hope for things to get better. I’ve seen some stories recently in which the characters do not have hope. Things go from bad to worse for them, and by the end of the story they simply give up. Readers have a hard time identifying with giving up. It seems counter to human nature, and especially so in the United States, where we have a history of striving to make a better life. We like people who fight for what they believe in. We’re not so crazy about the ones who give up.
Most good fiction includes bad things happening to your characters. Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story includes this: Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has a similar requirement: Step 7, the Supreme Ordeal (known as the Cave Scene in screenwriting), in which the main character must face a situation so dire that it forces her to face herself, decide who she really is and how she will respond. But note that each implies the possibility (hope) that things will get better.
Give your characters hope, even if it’s just a glimmer, and they will be sympathetic to your readers.
* This is not true 100% of the time. It’s actually more important for the reader to have the revelation. Sometimes characters just don’t get it.