How to Write Loveable Characters Part 2: Creating Sympathy

Storytellers say that conflict is the substance of all stories, but I disagree. Plot and conflict are meaningless if the audience doesn't care about what happens to your characters

Great characters are the heart and soul of any great story. Without them - we'll just be staring at the screen, feeling nothing. 

How do we make the audience care about our characters?  

In order to make the audience care about our character, we need to make them sympathize with the character. To sympathize means to build an emotional connection to the character. This is what will keep our eyes glued to the screen (or book).   

Two common mistakes people make when trying to establish sympathy are:

  • They try to make their character as detailed as possible. They think that by making their character ultra detailed, the audience will find the character more realistic and hence relate to them better. In reality, filling your character with superficial traits will only make them flatter than a pancake.
  • They make their character over-the-top miserable: "Jim lost both his parents, has no money to support himself, struggles to find a job, sucks at life and has an incurable genetic disease. Yeh, don't do that... Instead it's better to focus on one of these traits and go into great depth.

So how do we create sympathy properly? 

There are several ways to create sympathy: give the character a deep psychological wound, make them overcome impossible situations, give them a noble cause to fight for and several others. These methods are great.

I just want to add another which I found extremely useful: create a void within the character.

What this means is you should subtly withdraw certain needs or wants from a character - make them missing something from their lives, be it food, warmth, shelter or compassion, esteem, potential.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a good starting point:

We've all felt loneliness before, no matter how popular we may be.  We've also felt hopeless and loss at some point in our lives - we've all experienced failure at something, despite giving our best efforts. 

These are voids which are universal to humans. Creating this void in a character will make the audience immediately relate to them because they share a common humanity. The audience will feel for the character and start rooting for them to win.

This is different from a goal, because it's usually less specific and the character doesn't actively pursue it like a goal. An example of a goal would be: 'to escape from prison,' something the character acts on. On the other hand, an example of a 'void' would be 'lack of freedom,' something which might just be there, but the character doesn't need to pursue it. There could be three reasons for this:

  • Pursuing the void is futile and they've accepted to live with it
  • They don't know that the void exists. They mindlessly pursue another goal, thinking it'll make them happy when in fact, filling the void brings true happiness.
  • And finally: they must pursue other priorities (like the classic 'love vs. justice' theme which usually appears in detective movies).

If you compare these two characters:

1. A student who's fiercely determined to get good grades in university

2. A student who's determined to get good grades, but despite countless sleepness nights and perfect attendance, they always fall short (void = lack of potential); OR a student who must sacrifice everything else to get good grades (void = lack of happiness and other aspects of life)

The second one will always be more empathetic than the first one since it gives audiences a feeling they can relate to: lack of potential or self-doubt.

Hope you found those tips useful!

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