Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More about Sympathetic Characters

If you’re here for the query letter blogfest, my entry is here.
If you're here for the Crazy Holiday blogfest, my entry is here.

Sympathetic characters. What exactly does that mean? What do critique partners and agents/editors mean when they say you need to create more sympathy for a character?

The more I think about it, the more I think it means that the character isn't relate-able, they can't bond with the character. They don't understand the character's emotions and motive.

Which means I won't be giving Lorna a pet puppy. :)

Lorna undergoes huge character growth in the novel. In the beginning, she's cynical. Tough. Rough. She is an assassin after all. Has been for nearly a decade when the story starts. In the beginning, she enjoys killing. She's cocky and arrogant about her killing ability.

But she does change throughout the novel.

When I do back and read through the feedback that I've received for various beginnings of the story, I first was told to slowly add in her reason for being an assassin. So I changed it to reflect this. I drop hints (her first target is a druggie. At the end of the scene, you learn that he also used to beat up his son).

Then I was told that I should move up the sympathy. That readers needed to have sympathy for Lorna immediately, on the first page.

BUT most of those people that said that also said that they don't read assassin stories. I don't think they will ever feel for an assassin. Which makes them not my potential readers.

Basically, I am going to change the beginning. I'm going to add a scene where Lorna witnesses the abuse and decides to kill the druggie husband even though the mother wasn't able to come up with the money for Lorna's hefty fee. Doing that will create real smypathy in the reader (versus the fake sympathy from adding a puppy) but it will also show Lorna's god complex (you have to have a god complex in order to be an assassin) and will also lend more credibility to Lorna's growth and change throughout the rest of the novel.

What does sympathy mean to you? Do you have a hard time writing sympathetic characters?


Cherie Reich said...

I think that could be a really good idea to add that part to the beginning of your novel, although a part of it doesn't deem it necessary. I like reading about assassins, though. Serial killers too. Dexter anyone? :) But sometimes you have to do to add things to a novel to help the reader relate a bit more.

I think sympathy to me means "understanding." I don't have to relate completely to a character, but I do have to understand why the character does what he/she does. As for the second question, I have had to change a character a bit that I thought was sympathetic to me, but it wasn't to an editor. It's hard to tell because as a writer, you know your characters. Unless someone mentions they don't find the character sympathetic, then I think it would be hard to tell.

Talli Roland said...

I can relate to a tough character if I know why they're behaving in a certain way. I don't need to like them immediately, but I do need to have a little bit of insight into why they're acting that way.

Golden Eagle said...

It sounds like it's going to be a great beginning to your novel--I could definitely sympathize with a character who killed someone who'd abused someone else.

I have a hard time writing sympathetic characters--it's something I need to work on. Most of my characters are cold and not people many would sympathize with.

Angie said...

That sounds like a great idea for your character. I know when I am reading submissions, if I can't connect with the characters, I don't accept the story for sure. It is important to create that sympathy and connection as early as possible.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think sympathy also means relatability. I had to really work on that with my main character. My test readers said he was too much! Made him less of a jerk...

Colene Murphy said...

Oh. That's a really good plan, I think, for the beginning. Nice job!
Excited to see how you like it in the end!

Anonymous said...

That is a fantastic idea. I like that you came up with a credible reason. Not just some off the wall crazy thing. :) Of course, I've never read that. Good luck. This story sounds intriguing.

Theresa Milstein said...

What a good idea. I agree, there has to be something relatable in our characters - even our antagonists. Voldemort was born under certain circumstances not unlike Harry Potter, but the choices he made and ambitions he had set them apart. Plus he didn't believe in love.

Beth said...

I think the idea for the new opening is going to help a lot, though I don't really read assassin stories. Although Luke Dillon was an assassin and I did enjoy his story ;).

dolorah said...

I like your idea. The cause is something the reader can relate to (so gives the character sympathy by proxy) and it doesn't change her essential nature.

I love stories where the MC is deescalated. The tension is high and the reader may not like the character, but has some respect for what they are going through, or their skills or circumstances. This is a tough character to write b/c you have to go so slowly with the sympathetic qualities. It a tough character to read for the same reason. Many readers want to fall in love with the MC on the first page.

Not me; I like complicated characters. As long as there is something redeemable in the first chapter, I'll hang out with the character plot for a long while - usually to the end.

Lorna sounds like an engaging character.


Sophia said...

I think to an extent you can initially rely on readers being intrigued enough by the action to keep reading- you have the whole novel to make the readers like her. Then when you do slip in the sympathetic background in the next scene it just adds another layer.

In trying to create (at this point false) sympathy by having your assassin kill a bad guy for free, some readers may just think she's not that great a businesswoman (doing her job for free) and a plain old fashioned killer. An assassin reads as someone cold-blooded trying to earn a buck; someone who consciously chooses her victims risks coming off as a judgemental angel of death.

And surely most of the people she's sent to kill must have done something bad to warrant someone paying to have them killed? Why do this guy for free? And why stop there, why not kill all the creeps she comes across in the world? It's a slippery slope.

That's my $0.02.
- Sophia.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Great points all around!

I think I might be reading into the feedback I received too much. Some people will never read a story about an assassin. They'll never find the character sympathetic. And they won't be my readers down the line so I need to filter their voices out.

And Sophia, your point is excellent. At the close of the opening scene (the original opening scene where she kills the druggie because she's paid to), she mentions why she's an assassin: Because it pays well and because she can. Later on in the first chapter, there's a hint about her father having a link to her occupation. By chapter three, the reader knows it's because of her father's murder.

Now I'm rethinking her doing it for free or less money than her normal rate. It seems like assassin stories aren't everyone's cup of tea but I can go overboard the wrong way with the sympathy. Gah, it's a wonder that I have any hair on my head at this point!