The following bit is really only for you if you want to write popular fiction – although, if you are aiming for something that sells less well you might be interested in discovering something about the dark arts.
I will have to flip over to discussing characters, because the phrase everyone uses is sympathetic central character (not central people).
Why do readers decide they like a particular character in a particular book? Or more accurately, why does each individual reader decide they like this person in this book?
Because for a person to be sympathetic, they need to be directly appealing to each individual reader.
I have thought about this a lot, and have come up with a very simple definition –
A sympathetic character is someone whose true worth is unknown to those around them, and to the world in general.
The easiest example, because he became so universally loved in such a short time, is Harry Potter – Harry Potter but not as the final victor against Voldemort, but Harry Potter as we first met him, living beneath the stairs in the awful house of the horrible Dursley family.
Harry Potter has just about everything going for him, in terms of immediately gaining the reader’s sympathy.
He is an orphan, badly treated, not granted his basic dignity, physically vulnerable. But this is to put it too abstractly.
Poor Harry – I mean, he’s a young boy, both his parents have been killed, his adopted family force him to live in a tiny space beneath the stairs, and he wears a pair of broken National Health Service glasses (like John Lennon did). When a letter comes that could lift him out of his mundane life, the Dursleys keep it from him.
Thwarted hopes, these are very important for sympathetic characters. The character is ever hopeful and ever disappointed. Usually, their hopes are thwarted not through their own action or inaction but simply because their true worth is unknown to those around them and to the world in general.
The more modest the hopes, the more sympathetic the character is likely to be. At the beginning of the novel, Harry doesn’t want to go to Hogwarts and become a boy wizard – because he knows nothing of that. He’s received an envelope addressed to him. All he wants to do is be able to open that enveloped and read whatever is inside it.
Literary aside: The literary novel Stoner by John Williams became a great success years after it was published and its writer died. Very little happens in the book, and we know that very little happens because we are told so directly in the first few pages. Yet for many people the book is a great reading experience, because Stoner is a sympathetic central character. Throughout his life, his true worth is unknown to those around him and to the world in general. But, even more than Stoner himself, the book’s recent success depends upon it also being seen as sympathetic – because on publication, and for years afterwards, its true literary worth was unknown. John Williams died in 1994, never to know the many readers his book would one day find, and move.
This all sounds very reasonable and nice. Almost everyone wishes to think of themselves as basically a nice person who would be liked by people, if they were to be known by them. Isn’t sympathy just nice people feeling positively toward other nice people?
No, I don’t think so.
LOOP THE LOOP
A deeply sympathetic character creates what I would call a sympathy loop within the reader, a loop of ever intensifying identification.
All of us feel, rightly, that our true worth is unknown to those around us and to the world in general. Even those lucky or unlucky folk who become world-famous, universally celebrated for their ability to do something (score goals, rap, make scientific discoveries, play chess) are likely to feel frustrated that people don’t really know what they’re capable of. And we don’t – how could we? There is not enough human attention around for every human to get the attention they deserve. Fame makes this imbalance more extreme. There are people who spend far more of their life concerned with the injustices inflicted upon Harry Potter, a fictional character who feels nothing, that with their own brother, sister, father or mother.
If we’re very lucky, we get the full attention of at least one loving adult when we are a baby – our tiniest achievement is applauded, praised, relayed to others within our hearing.
Not to receive your full amount of attention and love is unjust. We all feel unjustly neglected, and so we all respond to instances of injustice. The Dursleys are unjust to Harry. His colleagues and lovers are unjust to Stoner.
The sympathy loop for Harry Potter works like this –
The reader feels their true worth is unknown. They read about Harry and see that his true worth is unknown. Harry is like me, the reader thinks. I am like Harry. Already, within a few pages, the identification has been made. (The opening chapters of the Harry Potter books are where J.K.Rowling is at her most brilliant.) But the loop continues. The world, thinks the reader, confusing the real world and the fictional world, is an unfair, unjust place where true worth goes unknown. And they continue, But if I recognise the true worth of Harry Potter, I make the work a slightly better place – a place in which I myself am more likely to receive recognition for my true worth. The more I value Harry Potter, who is very much like me, the more I am likely to be valued.
LEARNING TO LOVE YOURSELF IS THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL
What is really going on with sympathetic central characters – how could it be otherwise? – is that readers are finding a detour by which they can get back to themselves.
Readers find characters sympathetic because it gives them a chance to do a bit of disguised self-love.
I told you it was a dirty business.
For you, as a writer of stories, it is good to be aware of how this works.
In the most basic, practical way, you can rewrite characters to be more sympathetic. A very successful writer of popular fiction I know received some feedback from her editors. ‘The book’s great,’ the editor said. ‘But your central character isn’t very sympathetic.’ My friend told me her first thought was, ‘Oh, no – I’ve going to have to write the rescuing the kitten scene, again.’
The rescuing the kitten scene is the Save the Cat scene, popularized in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.
CAN SAVE THE CAT WORK
FOR EVEN THE MOST UNSYMPATHETIC CHARACTER?
Let’s just imagine something entirely implausible, that you would never ever write.
A serial killer has just buried his latest victim, an innocent young woman. We see him wipe the dirt off his hands and spit on her grave. He gets in the car and sets off for the next town, in order to kill again. He is a large, brutish looking man with a scarred face. He stops for gas and, as he’s filling the tank in his pick-up, he hears a kitten mewling. He looks around and discovers it, somehow stuck down a storm drain at the edge of the busy highway. At great risk to himself, the serial killer lifts the cover, reaches down into the drain and picks up the kitten who immediately bites his hand. The serial killer winces and drops the kitten, who falls down, unhurt on the tarmac. But it’s right in the path of a huge oncoming truck. The serial killer grabs the kitten and steps out of the road – the truck missing him by millimetres. The serial killer then replaces the storm drain and carries the mewling kitten back toward his truck. Just then, a little girl – who has seen none of his actions – comes out of the garage and rushes up to him. ‘Hey, mister,’ she screams, ‘are you stealing my kitten?’
‘No, here it is – have it,’ he says.
‘You were stealing my kitten!’ wails the little girl, drawing the attention of her burly father and uncles, who work in the machine shop. When they start to draw in, several even more burly bikers walk over, too.
‘Were you stealing my daughter’s kitten?’ the father asks, tire wrench in hand.
‘No! No!’ says the serial killer. ‘It was in the storm drain. I just rescued it.’
What are you feeling for the serial killer, right now?
How is that possible?
You never have to write Save the Cat, but you may find a subtle variation on it useful. If your character is prepared to do something nice for another character, with no hope of reward, they will go up in our estimation. If they are caught doing something nice but refuse to take any credit for it, or insist on passing that credit to someone else, we will like them even more.
Self-sacrifice is perhaps the most endearing quality of all. You’ll note that Harry Potter does it all the time.
One further word, it can make a character less sympathetic if they have chosen the circumstances in which they find themselves.
More in a bit.