Writing Excuses 9.25: Adjusting Character Sympathy
Key points: How sympathetic should a character be, and how do you adjust that? Why not sympathetic? Balance competence, or give them room to grow. To make another character more sympathetic by comparison. Changing sympathy levels makes characters feel more rounded. How do you adjust sympathy level? Distance — in the head is more sympathetic. Far away, lower sympathy. Funny, humor, wit. Self-awareness. Weakness, fatal flaw. Things that we admire. Competence and proactive. Another character interacting. Niceness! Pet a puppy, save a kitten. Failure — trying hard, but losing. Being beaten. Beware too proactive, too competent, may push us away. Mix humor and vulnerability in. To make someone unsympathetic? Do the opposite. Selfishness, invulnerable, always right, lack of self-awareness. Remove trust by sidekick (careful, may backfire). An important story arc starts with a sympathetic character, then has them lose that, and in the climax, regain your sympathy.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 25.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, adjusting character sympathy.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Brandon] You were so adamant you got to go second…
[Mary] I was sitting there waiting.
[Brandon] And now look at this. We…
[Dan] I wasn’t adamant about it.
[Mary] You jumped on it.
[Brandon] You were so adamant.
[Mary] You were pretty…
[Dan] Yes, I know.
[Mary] Oh, wait, they’re starting to…
[Howard] I need to… For starters, me being stompled on like this. I feel like…
[Howard] I feel like the Howard character for not getting to speak is now more sympathetic.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s true.
[Howard] Or maybe the Dan character is less sympathetic.
[Mary] I would agree with that.
[Dan] Less sympathetic because of how arrogantly he demanded to go before Mary.
[Brandon] All right. So this podcast is referencing the podcast where I talked about this idea of character having three sliding scales that I’ve envisioned. You can come up with your own. This is not a hard and fast rule. But I started to view characters as having a sympathy bar, a competency bar, and a proactivity bar that you can adjust. We talked about this concept, but what we realized is, we didn’t talk about how to actually move that bar up and down. So this isn’t just about creating sympathetic characters, it’s about deciding how sympathetic you want your character and then moving the bar appropriately. Now let me ask you, why would you want a character to not be sympathetic?
[Mary] Sometimes you need a character to be less sympathetic if… Well, first of all, villains. Villains, it’s handy if they’re not quite so sympathetic. But let’s say that we’re talking about a protagonist. Sometimes the reason you want them to be somewhat less sympathetic is because they’re so good at something else that people start to get annoying… Annoyed with them. But it also gives them somewhere to grow.
[Brandon] I would say that’s the main one, is the growth one. But on villains, you can… Even a villain is somewhere on this scale. I often mention the two villains from Lord of the Rings… Well, the two main ones. Sauron and Smeagol, Gollum. One is very sympathetic, one is non-sympathetic. You can put in your story… What does that non-sympathetic villain do for you that the sympathetic villain doesn’t?
[Dan] Another way to do this or another reason to do a non-sympathetic character is it’s a way of making a different character more sympathetic. In the John Cleaver books, which we’ll be talking about a lot in this podcast, in the second book there’s a character who shows up named Kurt, his sister’s boyfriend, who is an absolutely horrible person. One of the reasons that he is unsympathetic and horrible is because it makes you like John more.
[Howard] This is the muddy colors principle, and I can’t remember the artist who said this, but he basically said he could paint the Venus de Milo using nothing but mud if you would allow him whatever colors he chose for what surrounded her. That’s this principle at work. You can make somebody appear more or less sympathetic by who you put around them. I think that adjusting this sympathy slider… I’ve got… Almost always got an ensemble cast I’m working with and there are characters that I need to be very sympathetic and there are characters that I need to be unsympathetic, and it may change from book to book. Not necessarily relating to that character’s arc. It’s relating to what the muddy Schlocky color in the middle needs to look like. So I adjust what’s around him.
[Brandon] I’ll say that one person who’s a master of this is George RR Martin. He plays with this sympathy bar just like crazy in his stories. One thing that fans of his stories love about him, they talk to me about, is the idea that in the first book… I’ve only read the first one personally, the characters that I hated, they say in later books, “No, those are my favorite characters. You come to really understand and love them.” Which is George RR Martin taking and playing with these tropes. The really sympathetic people that start off, by the end they’re dead or unsympathetic. The unsympathetic characters are your favorites by the later books.
[Mary] Although I think it’s safe to say with George that they’re dead.
[Brandon] They’re probably dead. Yeah, they’re probably dead. This is something… Like I’ve always said, George RR Martin, I’ve read a lot of his short stories and things, is a master of characterizing in a short amount of time. This is one of the ways he does it, is by playing with this sympathy bar.
[Mary] It does make your characters feel more rounded. Even villains… Even if you want someone to be a character that is hated, having them be… Giving them some sympathy points are going to make them more rounded, and it’s going to make them more worthwhile to kind of go against because it’s not just a cardboard cutout. They feel more real.
[Brandon] In fact, the further you go in your book or your series or your story, the better it is to try and make the villain more relatable, I’ve found. You can have… At the beginning, you’re working so hard to characterize your protagonists that it’s okay to leave the villain off for a while. But then once the readers get to know those characters, then digging into and letting them understand the villain is going to help a ton. So, let’s do the how. What are the tricks that move this slider up and down? I can list one of them.
[Dan] Go for it.
[Brandon] One is distance. How emotionally distant or removed from you the character is. For instance, a very simple way to do this is putting you inside of someone’s head automatically makes them more sympathetic. Now you can have them then do things in that viewpoint that drive you away from liking them. You hate them even more because you see how nasty they are. But the moment you put them in the head, that moment starts sympathy. So that’s a closeness to the reader. How far off they are… It’s much easier for the reader… It’s much harder for the reader to relate to someone that is the King who’s away. This is why when the king shows up at the end of Robin Hood stories, you’re like, “Yay, the King.” But we don’t really care about the King. Yes, they been fighting for the King, but who cares. We’re attached to these characters and these sorts of things.
[Dan] More than anything else, that is the core of the John Cleaver books, is let’s put you in his head and then see how far we can push you away from him while still making you root for him. So some of the tricks to keep you rooting for him, to keep John as sympathetic as possible? He’s funny.
[Mary] I was going to say, funny is one… Humor is one of the key things, or wit. It doesn’t always have to be someone who is cracking jokes, but someone… Although that helps a lot. But someone who is aware and can find even the gallows humor in the situation is going to… One of the things about someone who makes fun of themselves is that it allows you to call attention to their weaknesses and their unsympathetic points.
[Brandon] Right. That they’re aware of them and this is a “Hey, this person knows what they’re doing.”
[Mary] That they’re flawed.
[Brandon] And that they’re flawed. I did an entire book where I masked two villains who were talking about horrible, horrible things as jokesters joking about these things. They were wonderful, you loved them, until the halfway point where they did something awful. It was one of the best reveals I’ve pulled off because the readers come to me and say, “I loved these characters.” I’m like, “Yes.” They were saying all along what they were going to do, and then they did it. And that was that jokey nature. If they had said those lines straight, everyone would have hated them from page one and they didn’t. They didn’t catch that they were villains, despite every action that they were doing was villainous.
[Mary] Specifically, in the John Cleaver books, the list of rules. Because he knows… And it’s…
[Brandon] Oh, yes. Self-awareness is very sympathetic.
[Mary] The self-awareness. The other thing, I also think, is weakness. Having some sort of fatal flaw, whether that’s physical, mental, emotional… Something that they desperately want to protect, whatever that weakness is… Kryptonite, having that will make you more sympathetic for them.
[Brandon] It will. Let’s stop for…
[Mary] Unless you go too far.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.
[Howard] Yeah. Let’s.
[Brandon] Howard. You were going to promo The Butcher.
[Howard] Yep. The Butcher of Khardov: The Warcaster Chronicles Volume 2 which is by some hack…
[Brandon] Some guy named Dan.
[Howard] Named Dan Wells. This is… If you’re at all familiar with the Privateer Press mythos, the character The Butcher is a crazy maniac overpowered murderous General. In game terms, nobody really understands him and he’s just horrible. When Dan wrote this book, yeah, I’ll be honest with you. I read this book and suddenly for the first time wanted to go out and buy this model so that I could have this guy because he was so sympathetic. Really, really well done. It’s a novella, about 30,000 words? 40,000 words?
[Dan] Around 30 or 40.
[Howard] Around 30 or 40,000 words. It is a wonderful story about a…
[Brandon] About a horrible person.
[Howard] But he’s very sympathetic. I’ve got to tell you, at the end of the story, you love him for what he is. For what he is and what he has become.
[Dan] He has not become anything good.
[Dan] But you love him anyway. I will say one of the great prides of my writing career is that this novella made Larry Correia cry.
[Mary] Wow. That’s impressive.
[Brandon] I’ll bet there are lots of people that wish they could make Larry Correia cry.
[Dan] I didn’t think he was capable of it, actually, but…
[Mary] He actually has tear ducts. Wow.
[Howard] Yes, he does.
[Howard] So, audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start a 30-day free trial membership, and grab a copy of The Butcher of Khardov: The Warcaster Chronicles Volume 2 by Dan Wells, narrated by Marc Vietor absolutely free.
[Brandon] Excellent. So, let’s continue on this theme. I want more ways to make characters more or less sympathetic.
[Dan] Okay. We’ve talked about self-awareness. One of the reasons that self-awareness is sympathetic… One of the reasons honestly that a lot of these things are sympathetic is because it’s a quality we admire. If we can admire that person and see something of ourselves, or something that we wish we saw in ourselves, then we will automatically like them more, whether it’s self-awareness, competence… although that’s a different slider that we’ll be talking about later…
[Brandon] It is. But it will move up this slider.
[Dan] It will.
[Brandon] The other two on this scale automatically move this slider up. Until you hit a certain kind of threshold as we talked about before when they become too superhuman which will start plunging their sympathy.
[Howard] This is a tricky way to move the slider, but if there is another character in the story the reader identifies with and trusts and they like this character, we… It bumps their sympathy.
[Brandon] Oh, this is not a hard one. In fact, this is not even… They don’t even have to know this person well. Giving the main character a sidekick, or having them interact with people who talk and know them will immediately skyrocket this.
[Howard] The example that I think of is Joss Whedon’s introduction of the cast of Serenity. In the first four minutes of that movie, we get to meet everybody, we get to know their roles. Captain Mal’s sympathy bar gets pushed all the way through the roof when Kaylee comes up to him and says, “I love my Captain.” Because we… We don’t know why we’re supposed to like Kaylee, but we automatically like Kaylee. I don’t know how they made that happen. But the fact that she likes Mal, we know that even though he’s being bossy and panicky and mean and not spending enough money, we love him.
[Mary] I think actually the reason we like Kaylee goes back to the competence thing. Because she’s very good with the engines, but she also has a vulnerability which goes back into the weakness thing.
[Brandon] And then there’s the other one…
[Mary] Although I probably should have said vulnerability more than weakness.
[Brandon] There’s the other one we haven’t mentioned that’s the old standby which is they’re nice.
[Mary] They’re nice.
[Brandon] Hollywood says, “Show someone petting a puppy if you want them to be sympathetic. Show them kicking the puppy if you want them to be unsympathetic.” Don’t do that. But we’ve talked about before that showing someone doing something nice will raise it, and being mean lowers it.
[Mary] Again, this is something that we admire in someone. Generosity and selflessness are things that we… It is that… The puppy thing, the fireman pulling the kitten out of… It’s like, “Oh, look at the… He went into a burning building for a kitten.”
[Brandon] Also failure is… This is your weakness, your vulnerability thing. I mentioned when we talked about this podcast, and some people may disagree with me on this, that Indiana Jones is really, really proactive, and that that raises our sympathy for him. That that’s his main thing. Mal is kind of the same way. They’re both playing this sort of rogue character where they try so hard and they fail most of the time. But it’s that failure… The introduction to the first Indiana Jones movie where we don’t really know Indy, we just know he’s trying really hard and by the end, he’s been bested. We love him at the end of him going through all of that and failing anyway.
[Dan] A lot of people are listening to this and thinking, “Oh, Indiana Jones and Mal and Han Solo. Those people are cool because they fail and then they try again.” That’s a big part of it. But the failure itself is important.
[Brandon] The failure is very important. They fail so spectacularly.
[Dan] Failing, taking damage, getting beaten down. That is more than… That’s one of the other big things with John Cleaver is, he has a horrible life and you want to help him.
[Brandon] This is a case where again, if these characters were more competent, they would be far less sympathetic.Mal, if he were able to do all the stuff he wants to do, would not work as a character.
[Dan] Harry Potter falls into this category.
[Brandon] He does.
[Dan] Because he is not a super competent character.
[Brandon] No. He’s the least competent of them.
[Dan] He is the least proactive of his group of friends. But he lives under the stairs, and he’s a… He has this awful life so we like him.
[Howard] I think the flipside of that is James Bond. The first… The opening scene of a James Bond movie makes him very proactive and super competent, but I never really like him.
[Brandon] Yeah, you don’t really like… Well, some people like him, but… Yeah.
[Howard] Well, I like that he’s competent, but it takes a whole film…
[Brandon] You want to watch him.
[Howard] Yeah, I want him to become more likable, but it takes the rest of the movie in which they show weakness and failure and whatever in order for me to like that character again.
[Brandon] On excellent example of this is any Jackie Chan movie. Jackie Chan is hyper competent, but in order to make you like him at the same time, any time he’s beating somebody up, he gets punched a lot, he slams his fingers in the door, he has humor and vulnerability mixed with his hyper competence.
[Mary] Because he actually manages to make his competence look…
[Mary] Accidental. Yeah.
[Dan] That’s the whole premise of Drunken Master.
[Brandon] You always feel like he’s a…
[Mary] Yeah, exactly.
[Brandon] That he’s at the very edge of getting the tar beaten out of him, and somehow he has scraped through, is how Jackie Chan makes it feel. A hero who is like that is more sympathetic. Now that’s not the only type of story you might want to write. It is all right to write the story, as Dirk Pitt I mentioned or some of these, the characters that you really don’t ever feel that they are in danger. Your reading about them for other reasons.
[Mary] So if you want to make your characters unsympathetic, then you do a lot of the opposites of what we’re talking about. You have someone who does something that is totally selfless… Err, selfish.
[Brandon] Selfish. Yes.
[Mary] Someone who does something that is totally selfish. You have someone who is invulnerable.
[Brandon] Yes. They never fail.
[Mary] The people who are always right are the ones that you are so annoyed by.
[Dan] Well, and lack of self-awareness. The character who is blind to some key aspect of their lives… We can’t stand that in a character. Whether it’s can’t you see that this person loves you and your chasing somebody else. That’s very unsympathetic.
[Howard] Now… You said we can accomplish this with the opposite. If someone who has formerly trusted this character now no longer trusts them… Sometimes that backfires on you, because we have all been betrayed. So that’s something… That’s why I say this is tricky to work out.
[Brandon] Right. I should mention, though…
[Howard] You are pushing one slider by moving a slider on a completely different board.
[Brandon] Something very important about this discussion is the arc where you have someone who’s sympathetic who does things you don’t want them to through the course of this story, and then you ramp it back up at the end. Which is… We should… We could have a whole podcast on that. But that’s basically the plot archetype of the second Spiderman movie which is a really strong movie, which is Spiderman doesn’t want to be Spiderman anymore. He abandons being Spiderman. You have the sympathy, you’re bringing it down, and then the climax coincides with bringing it back up.
[Dan] Great example of the character that you purposefully… Of losing trust or becoming unsympathetic is Nick Fury in the Avengers movie. We’ve loved him in all the other Marvel movies, and then in that one, we don’t like him anymore because he’s secretive…
[Mary] He lies!
[Dan] Because Ironman doesn’t trust him, and that says so much about him.
[Brandon] All right. Mary, you have our writing prompt.
[Mary] Yes. This time it’s actually not so much about the sympathy thing. I want you to take something that you have written recently and swap out all of the dialogue with words… With completely different words. You’re not allowed to reuse any of the same words, except I’ll grant you articles and pronouns.
[Brandon] Okay. Very nice of you. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.