Look at Elsa, side character from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:
She goes through a wonderful redemption arc – even helps Indiana kill the bad guy at the end.
But she is too hungry for the Holy Grail, and steals it for herself – even though the Guardian warned against such an action. Worse, her actions endanger all of the people who helped her survive.
…and in that moment, Elsa loses all of our sympathy. We think, “She deserves what she gets now.”
A sympathetic character does not seek their goal “at any cost” – unless that goal is…
George R. R. Martin’s characters are notoriously complex.
Except for Jon Snow.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, he was the bastard son of a King. His adopted mother loathed him. And he had every right to be an embittered, jealous man.
Yet he isn’t. Jon makes the conscious decision, again and again, to put others’ needs ahead of his. Unlike his older brother – who chose Love over the fate of the entire Kingdom…
…and paid for it.
Jon Snow might not be the cleverest protagonist, but he literally gave his life up – multiple times – for the good of the Realm. And if you don’t trust him by now, it’s probably because George R. R. Martin has made you paranoid.
Damn Red Wedding.
5. A Friend to all Animals
Does your character pet the dog, or do you kick the dog?
Have a character be nice to an animal, and our sympathy will soar. One of my favorite versions of this trope (and one I haven’t seen in a while) is the mad, wild animal that nobody can seem to tame.
…except for our very special character. When they tame that animal, we get to see them be firm, brave, and gentle – all at once.
What magic is really at work here?
I think it’s about vulnerability.
When you see a muscle-bound Giant being ultra gentle to the tiny creatures of the world, your heart swells.
It even works on robots – I think Star Wars is a great example: Luke goes out of his way to keep R2-D2 out of danger. Or, at least, he shows compassion for the droid.
Sympathetic Backstories and Emotional Traits
6. How Narrative Style Create Sympathy
Want people to care about a character?
Write from their point of view.
First person narrative is the obvious choice here – because we get to see their emotions, their reactions, etc. But you can also use third person limited (and select instances of second person) to replicate this effect.
For a great fantasy novel that does this, check out Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. One of the protagonists is a torturer who seems to derive pleasure by hurting others.
But the mere fact that we get to hear his thoughts and his reasoning, above all others, gives us something to sympathize with.
It’s the easiest, fastest way to make us feel for a character. A sympathetic backstory, when revealed in an interesting way, does two things:
Fleshes out the character, making them feel more real
Paints all of their actions in a new – and hopefully sympathetic – light
Gollum is a monstrous little thing. With pale, translucent skin, and wormy fingers.
It’s easy to hate him. Until we see his backstory:
Gollum (formerly known as Smeagol) was not a strong-willed being. He was utterly powerless in the sight of the Ring. Even so, he feels an immediate, cutting regret for his actions with his brother. After his defining moment, we can’t help feel bad for the guy.
…that is, until he crosses the line and betrays the others (again) for his own selfish desires.
8. How to Create Believable, Relatable Flaws
Too smart for their own good (which really means intelligent but not clever)
I can’t possibly cover all of the character flaws.
“If the flaw is the character’s own fault, they need a redeeming quality.”
A physical handicap is not the character’s fault. Therefore, there is nothing to forgive.
But cheating on a loved one? The character better have something that specifically counteracts that, otherwise we’ll never forgive them.
I’m reminded of a very important character in American Godsby Neil Gaiman. Even after death, she does everything in her power to redeem herself. And she’s not even doing it for forgiveness, but out of guilt and love.
9. Why Self Awareness is Extremely Attractive
Is your character a lily-livered, yellow-bellied COWARD?
We’ll still love them if the character is aware of their flaw.
For example, Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magicknows he’s probably the world’s worst sourcerer [sp]. Also, he’s afraid of everything.
And it tears at him – because people mistake him for, you know, a “real magician” who has “real power.” We get to see him wrestle with the identity that others give him… and eventually accept who he actually is.
Use that self awareness to build the character, escalate the conflict, and make us fall in love.
Write Characters Who are Confident (or at least Competent)
10. The Power of Personality
Where is Hannibal Lecter?
In a maximum security prison
In his own, specially made room
So… how does he make us feel like he’s the one in control?
Hannibal Lecter’s personality is striking. Disgusting, yes. But he presents his personality with such confidence, we are magnetized by it.
Personality will attract readers – even if it’s a frightening one.
Lean on confidence.
Make your characters wear that unique voice until they stand so far apart, we can’t help but look at them. That is… as long as you stay away from “obnoxious” personalities. Annoying characters are easy to hate.
11. Lists of Admirable Characteristics?
One of the most basic ways to make a character likable?