An important aspect to writing a compelling story is writing sympathetic characters. As the name suggests, sympathetic characters are meant to elicit readers’ sympathy.
These can be main characters or secondary characters, good guys or bad guys, but they are the characters that allow your readers to become emotionally invested in your story.
They are the characters that make your readers care. And when your readers care, they are more likely to finish reading your book.
Sympathetic Characters vs Unsympathetic Characters
As I mentioned above, both heroes and villains can be sympathetic.
So, if it isn’t whether the character is on the good side or the bad side, what determines if a character is sympathetic or not? Simply put, it’s whether the reader can understand them, relate to their struggles, and feel for them.
As William Kowalski says in his article, Creating Sympathetic Characters: Our Guide:
“A sympathetic character isn’t just one we feel sorry for. It’s someone in whose struggle readers have become wrapped up, the more completely, the better. We feel the same range of emotion he feels.”
An unsympathetic character is one whose actions and motives are un-relatable.
They could set out to hurt people for no other reason than their own selfish whims, or because they simply want to have things their own way. An example would be Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.
Alternatively, their motives may be unknown to the reader, and in the face of this lack of knowledge, their actions seem cruel and heartless. The reader cannot sympathize with them.
Examples Using Well-Known Villains
Sympathetic villain: Magneto from the X-Men
If you’ve read the comics or watched the movies, you’ll know that Magneto and his rival, Professor X, are also friends.
They have similar goals, the main one being freedom for mutant-kind.
But what makes Magneto the bad guy is that he is willing to sacrifice humans to reach those goals. In fact, he sees ridding the world of non-mutants as the only way to ensure mutant safety.
Magneto isn’t just some mindless megalomaniac, as many villains in superhero stories are.
He is a three-dimensional character with a rich back story that’s made known to the audience from the very start. He is a Holocaust survivor. He was tortured and experimented on by his non-mutant captors. His mother, who he loved dearly, was killed by them.
Many of his early interactions with non-mutants were marked by cruelty towards him and those he cared about.
Everything Magneto does is colored by those past interactions. Because of this, and because we are given this information right from the start, even when we don’t agree with his decisions, we can understand them. We can sympathize with him.
Unsympathetic Villain – Darth Vader in the Original Star Wars trilogy
Viewers know nothing about Vader at the start except that he serves the evil Empire.
He is the right-hand man of the Emperor, he is strong with the force, and he is power-hungry. When we first see him, he is pursuing Princess Leia, who he captures and tortures in an effort to reacquire the stolen plans for the Death Star.
Every time we see Darth Vader, he is pursuing the rebels—the good guys—and trying to take them down.
We see him torturing and intimidating people. We don’t, however, see him interacting with or connecting to anyone on a close, personal level. He remains essentially two-dimensional for the majority of the trilogy, up until we learn he is Luke’s father and we realize there is more to him than meets the eye.
Still, he doesn’t do anything or make any decisions capable of stirring feelings of sympathy and understanding in the audience until the very last moment of his life, when he sacrifices himself to save Luke.
But is that enough to make up for all the evil he did and make him sympathetic?
That’s probably a matter of opinion, but for me, he remained unsympathetic right up until the prequels were released and we learned his complex backstory.
How to Write Sympathetic Characters
Begin your first chapter from the point of view of your protagonist and show them doing/experiencing something that will make readers feel for them
Let’s look at Katniss in The Hunger Games.
The first book opens with Katniss reaching across the bed for Prim. We very quickly learn that she’s a teenager, the oldest of two sisters, and she’s the caretaker for her younger sister and her mother, who’s been practically catatonic since the death of her husband.
Suzanne Collins let’s us know right from the start what Katniss’s priorities are and what motivates her. Making sure her family survives is essentially the only thing she cares about.
I didn’t find Katniss to be a particularly likeable character, especially early in the book. But I did understand her and I did sympathize with her.
So, even when she thought back to the time she tried to drown Buttercup the cat—an act most people would find despicable—I could understand her reasoning. It wasn’t that she was evil or cruel, it was that the lives of her sister and mother were her top priority and, from her point of view, the cat would be taking precious resources from her family when they were barely surviving as it was.
Make your characters three dimensional
The degree to which you do this will depend on how important that character is to the story but create a rich backstory and use just enough description to show/tell what drives him so that the reader can relate and sympathize.
As Kristina Stanley says in her article, Connect Readers With Characters Using Description:
“A character becomes even more interesting if they have a past that is driving their actions.”
You can see this in my examples of Magneto and Darth Vader.
Give your characters relatable goals and weaknesses
As Polly Watt says in the article, How to Create Compelling Characters:
“The more universal a character’s inner goal/weakness, the easier readers will find it to connect with them.”
Give them worthy, selfless goals or, if they start out selfish, have them learn the error of their ways and form new, better goals by the end. Give them relatable weaknesses and limitations.
Give them obstacles to overcome
This is even better when the struggles you give them are ones people face in the real world.
For example, an obstacle could be their economic or social status. It could be marginalization due to race, gender, and so on. You can show these every-day, real struggles at play even in genres such as fantasy and sci-fi.
Article Written by Sherry Leclerc
Sherry Leclerc is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor, Fictionary content creator, Writer’s Digest certified copy editor, and independent author. She is a member of Editor’s Canada, the Canadian Authors Association (CAA), and The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
Sherry holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and a B.Ed. She is the sole proprietor of Ternias Publishing, through which she offers various editorial services. She also has a YouTube channel where she has a vlog about writing and editing, titled The Mythic Quill. You can find it on Youtube .