HOW TO CREATE A SYMPATHETIC CHARACTER
A common note which writers frequently hear is that they need to make their lead character more ‘sympathetic’. Which begs the question of how, exactly? Blake Snyder’s answer to this question even engendered the title of his well-known book on writing, “Save the Cat”. I.e., have the character engage in some sort of altruistic behavior early on that tells us they’re a good person. There’s admittedly some truth to this, but if all you’ve got is some obligatory bit of Bobby bringing hot soup to the old lady shut-in next door, it seems like a cop out to me– too cheesy, too easy and worst of all, too tired.
But watching tennis player Andy Murray’s concession speech yesterday at the conclusion of this year’s Wimbledon in the wake of his hard-fought loss to Roger Federer, I found myself unexpectedly welling up with emotion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/08/andy-murray-speech-wimbeldon-final-federer-video_n_1657464.html (And, full-disclosure, I’m not really that much of a sports fan). Yet you, (that is, I), couldn’t help but feel for him. And it struck my how powerfully it engages our hearts and sympathies when someone ferociously tries. It may not be true in sports, but in stories I think it truly isn’t whether they win or lose, but how hard they play the game. That’s what makes us invest and care. It speaks to the part of all of us which, at the very least from time to time, sees ourselves as the underdog, and aspires to have the will to overcome life’s inevitable slings and arrows.
So, if you’re struggling to make your lead more sympathetic, check this. Make sure they’re fighting hard enough and make sure we understand what it is they’re fighting for– the significance of what it means to them. And whatever you do, don’t make it easy on them. Have them get knocked down and have to get up again, figuratively and/or literally. Have them struggle to get back on their feet, to achieve what it is they’re after. Even make it take every last ounce of strength they have, but in the end, don’t let them give in and don’t let them give up. Imagine them as the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If”:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
Because the dignity– and the sympathy– is in the fight. It’s the trying, not necessarily the succeeding, that moves us and counts with us the most.