Faith and Storytelling

Intersection of the spiritual and the creative

10 notes

Sympathetic vs Unsympathetic Characters: A conversation with @Becca_Lovatt:

Let’s join this conversation, already in progress…

Rebecca Lovatt was saying…

I love The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.. hm.. The Last Stormlord by Glenda Larke was fantastic.

And then I said:

Joe Kawano
 
What makes a book good for you? What do you look for in a book?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Well, characters that are believable, for the most part.. Characters that have their own struggles, that make mistakes.. If the author can make a character that you can feel compassion for, and care about what happens to him/her.. Well, that’s definitely good.. Even the antagonist plays a huge role — what are their motives? Are they evil for the sake of being evil, or do they simply have a different way of seeing things? If a book has a antagonist that’s evil simply to give the protagonist something to do.. Well, that’s lazy; and a lot of the book will suffer for it.
Joe Kawano
 
I can agree with that.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Though.. There needs to be a strong plot as well.. If you just have a bunch of great characters sitting in a room doing nothing, well.. they’re great characters, but so what?
Joe Kawano
 
This whole thing about characters that make mistakes is a thing I’ve come to appreciate in a new way—like you can have characters that mess up without prompting that messing up.
What makes for a strong plot then? Characters taking lots of action?
That’s supposed to be what it is — not stuff HAPPENING to the characters…but the characters taking action. Or is it a mix of both?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Exactly.. and having them mess up — well, it might mean the deaths of some of their friends even.. They messed up, and now their journey is going to be even harder.. They can’t blame anyone but themselves. It allows a lot of room for character growth, and to give the character a somewhat sympathetic cause.
Joe Kawano
 
Really? So if they do something wrong, selfish, foolish or otherwise horrible — you feel it can help them be more sympathetic?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Hm.. I think it has to be a mix of both, you have to find the right balance — there’s no definite answer to that question. Some authors write fantastic books of just things happening to the characters, and the characters responding to it.. Whereas some have written fantastic stories of the characters setting out on their own and initiating events. I think a balance works well though, a lot of the time if things are just happening to the characte… See All
Joe Kawano
 
Are there really books where things just happen to characters and those books still read well?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
And yes, I think it can help you become more sympathetic to the character — everyone makes mistakes, and if you have the ‘reluctant hero’ as your protagonist.. Well, they got thrust into a situation they never wanted, and they messed up now, and are paying for it.. You can’t help but feel bad for them.. And there are, I can’t think of their titles right now, but it takes a lot of work for it to turn out well.
Joe Kawano
 
Are those books really just reactive, or can we count the antagonists taking action too?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
You have to have things happening to them — and have them react to it believably, but set it up in a way so that there isn’t much they can do, but wait for something else to happen, or have events happen too quickly for them to go out and do something. Books with prophesy as a focal point tend to have that incorporated into it fairly well. You may have the characters planning on doing something — but then things being taken out of their control and start happening before they’re prepared.
Hm.. You do have the antagonist taking action as well.
Joe Kawano
 
Well, thank you.
That helps me.
I know I need to focus on helpful characters.
*helpful = sympathetic
oops
Rebecca Lovatt
 
You’re very welcome :) I’m glad I could help!
Joe Kawano
 
And learning how to do them.
My natural inclination is towards story/plot and world, and only now do I realize how important characters are and how to do them right.
What else makes characters sympathetic?
And don’t you hate characters who make dumb mistakes?
But somehow if they make mistakes you love them…maybe if they’re mistakes that you yourself would make too….
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Hm.. Well, have something happen to the characters? Harry Potter — orphan, forced to live with unlikeable relatives..
Joe Kawano
 
Yeah, the victim underdog scenario for sure.
Here’s my list:
1. Make them an underdog.
2. Make them similar to your particular audience (e.g. geeks for scifi, etc.)
3. Have them take action, especially action that we admire.
4. Set them up with other characters in the plot whose weaknesses are in the area where the main characters’ is strong, or whose weaknesses are way worse than the characters’ weaknesses.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yes, I dislike characters that make dumb mistakes.. I got annoyed with Frodo pretty frequently.. But yeah, making mistakes that anyone would make, that helps a lot..
Joe Kawano
 
I feel like I’m missing something from my list.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Hm..
Here’s a link to an ex-agent (now writer)’s blog post on sympathetic characters.. His blog is filled with useful information like that. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2009/02/sympathetic-vs-unsympathetic-characters.html
Joe Kawano
 
You are so helpful.
OH.
I just remember something.
5.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Thanks! :) I’m glad that I’m able to help
Joe Kawano
 
The character has a flaw, but you see them A) recognize the flaw, and then B) work to correct it!
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yes, definitely :) Or if you’re going Shakespearean, they have that fatal flaw which is their downfall..
Which is typically best to be kept for side characters
Joe Kawano
 
Although, I don’t think that made me like them anymore.
any more.
Oh oh.
I just remembered.
6. The character is really, really, good at something. That can be quite admirable too. Just watched Iron Man 2 and the secret agent woman with her amazing martial arts was really a person you wanted to come back too. So was Tony Stark for being so smart. (for this point, I thank the guys at WritingExcuses.com)
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yup, though with that point.. You really need to be careful to not overdo it, or else the character will seem over-done, boastful or like they’re unstoppable (that one thing gets them out of every situation; thus, creating the ‘invincible character’)
It’s a lot easier to get away with that in movies than in books
Joe Kawano
 
Really?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
In books you have to describe it.. In a movie; you don’t — the character just does it.. If you make a habit of repeating what they’re really good at over and over, it becomes redundant and the reader tires of it quickly.. A book I read recently, A Blight of Mages has a perfect example of that.. One of the characters is brilliant and powerful, but almost every time you hear about that character; that’s all they talk about.
As with anything.. Balance is key.
Joe Kawano
 
Well, being good, and TALKING about being good are too very different things.
I suppose you could add “talks about being good” to the list for UNsympathetic characters.
1. Boasts about being good.
2. Has lots of cool stuff that he apparently did not work for (the reverse makes a sympathetic character)
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yep, undoubtedly.. But I really could not count how many times a description of the character or their actions were along the lines of “Barl, being one of the most powerful mages in history, and with the most ability/potential, did the action with ease in a few minutes while it took her colleagues days of hard work.”
So yeah, make sure it’s known, but don’t shove it down the reader’s throat at every opportunity :)
Joe Kawano
 
Yes, see…that would make them UNsympathetic, since you bring them in with all this power that they never had to work for.
…or, if they did work for it, you never SEE it, so the audience has no time invested in it.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yup exactly.. And with a character that powerful that never had to work for it, it would fit that they’d want more power — so you’ve now got a power-hungry, spoiled protagonist. There’s really nothing sympathetic whatsoever.. and doesn’t give the reader any incentive to read on.
Joe Kawano
 
Yeah, and you lose ‘underdog’ with that, as well as the character-comparison one too — since the other characters seem to be at an unfair disadvantage. Plus, that limits their ability to take action—that we admire, since they’ll mostly not have to, and the action that they do take is more likely to end up being unsympathetic since it will often be using power against those who have less.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yup, so it’s best to avoid that.. There’s only one — maybe two ways to kind of get out of that situation when you create it (without going back and rewriting everything), but if you can steer clear of that situation; it’s for the best.. There’s more chance for all your characters to grow, and for the readers to become engrossed.
Joe Kawano
 
What are the 1-2 ways?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Well, in the book I mentioned earlier that had a perfect example of this.. Barl; the one who was really powerful/”perfect”, wanted one thing: To get into the academy of magic.. While she was technically stronger than all of the councilors who determine who gets to enroll in the school, they held more power, and thus it gives the character something they need to work at — it puts them in a situation where they’re no longer in control of everything and where they’re being denied.
Joe Kawano
 
So—make someone who is even stronger than the strong protagonist…
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yes, in a way.. They’re only stronger in the sense that they’re blocking her from her goal.. They become an obstacle that the protagonist either has to accept, defeat, or find some way to work around.. With the protagonist no longer just being on top, it does allow for some character growth as (s)he then needs to broaden their horizons to search for alternative methods.
Joe Kawano
 
Ah…right
Rebecca Lovatt
 
In sense of strength — they’re weaker than her, but they have power of her because they hold her future in their palm.. They can deny her the one thing she has ever wanted. I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well, but it’s basically just finding the protagonists one weakness, and using that to point out flaws and making them lose some of their supremacy.
Joe Kawano
 
In other words, the only way to deal with your super character is to basically start to undo some of their superness…
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yep, if you just have a super character from beginning to end, there’s no way for the character to improve, or to make mistakes.. There wouldn’t be any conflict because the super character could handle anything easily.. And so you wouldn’t really have a story.
Joe Kawano
 
Too true!
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Superman — pretty much invulnerable, but he has a weakness; kryptonite. Those who are in possession of it can get power over him.
If you’re going to have an invulnerable character, make sure they have an “Achilles’ heel” and that it gets used against them.
Joe Kawano
 
I’m feeling that too.
The link you sent mentions hilariousness and charisma…
Which could be chalked up to “being good at being funny or charming” or could be a whole other point too.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yup, and it can be fun to write one character who is constantly the comedic relief throughout the story.
Joe Kawano
 
Those characters have great opportunity to grow too.
It is the most poignant when an (always) funny character does something serious for once.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Definitely
And, a lot of times funny characters get killed off.. It does help with setting the mood if you want to have a dark scene/battle.. A little bit when it seems like there’s no hope whatsoever.
Joe Kawano
 
That makes a lot of sense too.
I do like it when funny characters grow.
I wish Jar Jar in the Phantom Menace, when being made a general, actually stepped up to the plate and grew a little.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yeah, that would’ve been good
Joe Kawano
 
There was a Clone Wars episode where they came back to that pretty well.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
I’ve never watched Clone Wars
Joe Kawano
 
That’s okay. Keep reading books. You’re far better off.
Rebecca Lovatt
 
But yeah, comedic relief characters = great tools.. No matter what they do/what happens to them, you can always use that to add growth to the protagonist(s), or to change the mood of the scene.
And watching shows every now and then is good :P I only watch TV once a week or so.. I wouldn’t mind getting more shows to watch.
Joe Kawano
 
How many books do you fathom you’ve read by now?
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Lots? :P At least 150 since July
But most of those have been rereads of books I’ve read before
Joe Kawano
 
Goodness.
Coming back to funny characters, and then I’ll have to go, I think that a character who is funny all the time suffers from the same fallbacks as the character who is so powerful that they are successful all the time.
They’re hard to relate to.
It’s like (in both cases): “Don’t you have a life?”
"Doesn’t bad stuff ever happen to you?"
Rebecca Lovatt
 
Yep definitely.. And it’s not like you can have a funny character crack a joke right after something tragic happens.
You can’t be like “Oh! Well.. He’s dead, more food for me!”
Joe Kawano
 
Do you mind if I just take this whole conversation about sympathetic vs. unsympathetic characters right into my storytelling blog?
I just want to keep track of what was said.

Filed under characters sympathetic