Writing Excuses 9.25: Adjusting Character Sympathy

This podcast references episode 9.13 where we introduce a three-slider model for characters. Here we talk about character sympathy, or rather the sympathy that the reader will have for the character, and how we as writers go about adjusting that sympathy — moving the slider, if you will. We also talk about why we want to make that adjustment, whether we’re dealing with villains, side-characters, or protagonists.

Some of our tricks for moving the slider include changing the characters around them, controlling the distance between the reader and the character, showing character weaknesses, and using humor to mask the unsympathetic moments. We talk about how we’ve deployed these tools in our own work, and how we’ve seen it done well in the work of others.


Take something that you’ve written recently. Swap out all of the dialog with completely different words (you can keep articles and pronouns) but retain the meaning.

The Butcher of Khardov: The Warcaster Chronicles Volume 2, by Dan Wells, narrated by Marc Vietor.

10 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.25: Adjusting Character Sympathy”

  1. One example of sympathy being ratcheted up for the bad guys is the old, animated GI Joe cartoon.

    Cobra always had these grand plans, and every time the GI Joe team would stop them cold. After watching a handful of seasons after school, I was rooting for Cobra. Whether it was tedium, or actual sympathy remains murky.

  2. How to make the King who is away sympathetic…

    Establish the character *before* he leaves. Pour your sympathy points and interaction into that moment.

    Have a character keep interaction with him, even when gone to keep establishing the character. Character interaction keeps one engaged in the character. (I learned this from Jean Plaidy, historical fiction writer)

    Have him come back at least a few times.

    Also, I think if you do it well, if the character goes missing, the reader will miss the character, because there are other characters fully invested in his existence. If you make a better argument for that, then you can get around this problem of the King being constantly away.

    The List from the Episode:
    Vulnerability– Failure
    Getting beaten down
    Things people admire
    Talk to people who know them

    What if the weakness is lack of world awareness? I’m having trouble making the character sympathetic. Because sometimes you want to slap the character and have them notice. The character is aware of themselves… just not the world around them. I guess that’s why extroverts are more popular protagonists.

    I’ve been writing some dialogue without pronouns. It’s difficult.

  3. Wait, so having someone chasing after someone else when this other character clearly loves them is supposed to be unsympathetic? No wonder I don’t understand the romance genre – a core piece of the formula is designed to make you dislike the protagonist. I thought desympathizing was something to be done to villains. Robot is confused!

  4. And in response to Rachel’s post (I’d edit if I could!):

    The problem with that formula is that, depending on the story premise, it could well break the foundations on which the story is built. I must admit I’m only familiar with the kiddie version of Robin Hood (he was a fox, and the sheriff was a large black thing that I never did manage to figure out what species it was supposed to be), but as I recall, the basic premise was that the King was away and Prince John, acting as regent, was abusing his powers, which drove Robin Hood to his behavior. Before the King left, there’s no conflict, and if he keeps coming back and doesn’t notice his regent is being abusive, he’s not worthy of his crown (the Machiavelli reader in me points out that his _virtu_ is questionable as it stands, but that’s getting way beyond the scope of the story.) I’m sure there are ways to make your version of events work well, but it certainly requires a much wider level of conflict than the basic Robin Hood story. (Assuming Disney’s version is a reasonable matchup to the actual story, which is…questionable at best.)

    As for the weakness…hmm. By the context you mean a person who’s oblivious to the world rather than a stranger lost in a new world. Let’s see if I can list a few decent examples:
    John Wayne Cleaver, insofar as his social life. He’s eyes-open when it comes to the demons, but he’s oblivious to pretty much everything else.
    Schlock, in a very different way. A minimal, almost childish comprehension of proper behavior, coupled with a taste for mayhem and a very powerful plasma gun make for some very awkward situations. Again, he’s got a specific area that works well for him, and is otherwise challenged. In this case, it’s open combat.
    Daniel Jackson in Stargate SG-1 (yes, I switched media), especially in the first season or so. He’s an archaeologist being faced with living examples of the societies that are, on Earth, long dead, on a military scouting operation that doesn’t have time for the whole anthropology thing. It’s only one aspect of his character, but it’s presented very well and ramps up the sympathy meter (of course, that particluar character really doesn’t need any help with being sympathetic).
    There’s one guy in Big Bang Theory who seems to be almost completely divorced from reality who might fit the bill. Of course, you’re probably not going for the level of comedy that show operates on, so their approach probably wouldn’t work all that well.

    Of course, if you meant that he’s a self-absorbed asshole, then you’ve got a lot of work to get him much sympathy.

    And writing dialogue without pronouns? Why do you need to avoid pronouns? I can see avoiding tags completely; I can see deliberately avoiding meaningless tags like “he said” and replacing them with facial expression cues; why is the use of he, she, or they a problem?

  5. I think it’s important to be aware of that society’s view on specific character traits may shift over time and make the character “flaw” seem dated and loose importance.
    One example of this is that in some books that were written 20 years or more ago the “villain’s” bad unsympathetic character traits sometime would include bi- or homosexuality. At the time the book was written it was viewed as a bad and very unsympathetic character trait by the majority of the readers and the society as a whole. Whereas now you don’t react in the same way. Nowadays as a reader you’d rather think about what an obvious clumpsy effort in trying to make the character unsympathetic it was and it breaks down the fourth wall to some degree.

    I could give examples of this but I don’ want to point any fingers at competent respectable authors who used the tools available at the time to evoke sympathy or the lack of it.

  6. There’s a kitten stuck way up in the tree! Can’t anyone save it?


    Oh, Superman! Thank you so much!

    And while we’re waiting to see if Superman can also catch the crooks that he let get away while he was save the kitten…

    A transcript! In words and everything! Just for your reading pleasure. Over here


    And available in the archives, too!

  7. Harry Dresden should be included to the list of characters who gain major sympathy points from being beaten up. Also, humor and pop culture references, but mostly being beaten up.

  8. @Rashkavar

    You should read the original! My Dad did it as a bedtime story. =P I can’t imagine anyone seriously trying to discuss the book off of an adaptation.

    That given, they said that the King who is away is often unsympathetic, but I’m pointing out that there are ways to do it. With an absent King, the conflict doesn’t have to solely come from him. You haven’t read enough historical fiction. As I cited, Jean Plaidy was a master of getting you to sympathize with absent Kings. I really felt for Henry V, even though most of the time he was gone, and the protagonist clearly had some kind of love for him, but she still had to deal in large part with the problems of the court because of his sudden absences. So, if the King was say, corresponding with Robin Hood, encouraging him, and you established the King before he left and Robin hood as his protege before Robin Hood was kicked out of the court by the “evil” King John, and then the King relays back how he’s trapped in the crusade and asks Robin Hood to continue his work because he can’t get a foothold in the court, because Maid Marion, who was the one that was supposed to be regent was usurped, then you have a layered political drama and the King comes off sympathetic. If you play your cards rights, you could even make the reader feel bad that he’s about to lose the crown because he’s fighting two battles at once. Exception to every rule.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley played a similar hand too in Mists of Avalon. But Jean Plaidy was really a master since she did it repeatedly.

    It’s pretty much the techniques I listed…. but that’s why reading outside of your genre is important. You learn techniques from other genres. While romance often has some problems with logical sense, it often portrays a perfect example of externalizing your conflict in the hands of a rival.

    They also mentioned that people who aren’t self-aware are difficult, but sometimes readers get frustrated when the writer lays all the pieces in front of the character and the character *doesn’t* get it. It’s the *dense* character. *Ohhhhhh… I now get it, it was Miss Marble in the dining room with Mr. Poirot.* When the reader got it 20 pages ago and is screaming, “Get it already!” or in the extreme case spends a lot of time navel gazing and looking away from what’s really happening. I have a character who is super self aware, but her focus is not on how things are changing and that’s causing problems for her–but I get the feeling that the readers will get it before the character does and thus be frustrated…

    And I’m having to rewrite dialogue without pronouns because unfortunately for me, the language (non-fantasy language) doesn’t use pronouns that often, especially for the real historical period. Using pronouns within the language too often is seen as rudeness, especially to your superiors, which makes my life difficult. It means I have to cut down on pronouns as much as possible. I’m trying to give a sense of the formalities within the language because it’ll be important to show it breaking down for things like rudeness, decorum, etc. Doing that in English is not easy, but it can be done.

  9. To be fair, it’s on the list. The list is extremely long, however, and seems to grow at about triple the rate that I read.

    And personally, I’d have a really hard time sympathizing with a king who goes out of country (repeatedly, no less). One of the most basic rules in the Prince is “live where you rule, so you can see the revolution coming and fix things before it happens.” (Given what it also says about making the people your supporters, this doesn’t mean a Stalin purge type fix, despite what you’ve heard about that book.) It takes a damned good reason to break that rule. Henry V might get credit from me for coming back and seeing what’s going on, but only if he’s actually going to be smart and use that time to determine what’s gone wrong in his absence and fix it.

    And with the dense characters, conversely, it’s amazing how much people remember in stories. I find it equally jarring when people start mentioning obscure little factoids that about things that happened earlier in the book – months or years earlier within the story.

    And in English, the workaround for pronouns is to use titles. I’m reading Count of Monte Cristo right now, and I’ve yet to see anyone refer to anyone in Paris refer to another as Monsieur, Madame(oiselle), or their formal court rank (Baron, Count, Viscount…) in person, and generally by surname (Danglars, Vilefort, etc) when being spoken of, acompanied by the honorific if it’s not the patriarch of that family (so Danglars and his wife, Madame Danglars, and his daughter Mademoiselle Danglars). (Well, married couples in private, and people who are young and want to be married couples, also in private.) For English, it’s only tough if you don’t know how it’s done. Reading Count of Monte Cristo might help a lot, there (and provide great enjoyment as well; as melodramatic as it is, it’s still damned good). There’s some substitutions to do, of course, but it should be workable. If you’re not working in English, I have no idea, unless the translation of Monte Cristo uses the proper behavior for that language. English works well with French because the most recent version of “proper society” in England was more or less developed in the Norman Invasion and is thus basically French

  10. To be fair to GRRM, there is one character who you’re consistently rooting for (or at least I am) who consistently perseveres: (Needlessly obvious spoiler warning) Tyrion Lannister. It’s funny – he’s one of the biggest assholes I’ve seen in literature (not to mention his laundry list of personal character flaws), but only to those who deserve it. He fits at least 5 of the 7 deadly sins (wrath, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony, plus he poses as slothful and probably is only not avaricious because the only thing he’s ever lacked for most of his life is freedom), and he consistently shoves it in the face of everyone that it bothers – plus he’s absolutely vicious to almost everybody around him. The things that makes him sympathetic is that those same people are just as abusive to him, due to his dwarfism, and his rare moments of decency on the few occasions he encounters someone truly deserving of it. Come to think of it, he’s dialed up pretty high on all 3 sliders – he’s a sympathetic character almost from the first (as I recall, it’s his trip to the Wall with Jon Snow that first brings that to the fore), he’s one of the most competant people in King’s Landing (both strategically, winning a battle that should be unwinnable), and politically (he’s no Littlefinger, of course, but still) – though not physically, of course, due to the aforementioned dwarfism, and he plans things well in advance most of the time.

    And Brandon – I’m just rereading (for the 3rd or 4th time) the book you’re referring to about the joking villains – it’s the first reread where I actually remember who they are, and knowing the truth about them (and knowing that a lot of their “jokes” are actually 100% candid) adds a whole new dimension to the concept of dark humor.

Comments are closed.