Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Three Ways to Develop a Sympathetic Main Character

Agents handing out rejections have been known to observe that they "didn't connect" with a novel's main character. If you attend writers conferences, you're bound to hear variations on this theme. Especially in children's lit, agents tend to be looking for "character driven" stories.  They're looking to sympathize and identify. They want to "fall in love."

So how to create main characters readers will love? My SCBWI writers group got into this topic recently when someone observed that when you've done your job with a character, really done your job, you'll feel "emotionally exhausted" after a writing session.

Digging Down Deep
That observation really hit home.
If your characters are flat, it means your writing isn't "taking"--in the same way that psychological therapy doesn't work if your session is too easy. I'm not suggesting you should weep or rant through every writing session, Heaven forbid. But you should be feeling, intensely, what your character is feeling. And you ought to be nailing those emotions precisely to the page.

New writers tend to rush through scenes of high emotion. We're so engaged with moving the plot forward--but I think, too, we have a built-in aversion to deep feeling. Deep feeling is uncomfortable. It hurts. The best writers learn to conquer their aversion, or at least tamp it down. So the first method for drawing sympathetic characters is a basic one.

1. Put yourself there.
Before you start writing a scene of high emotion, or as you're revising it, take a few minutes, close your eyes, and imagine yourself in that exact place.Visualize. Think about what you'd be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting. What are your associations with this experience? What are your memories? What are your physical sensations? What (most certainly mixed) emotions are you experiencing? Then get those sensations, emotions and memories down on your page.

2. Sympathetic characters have problems.
In his book on screenwriting, Save the Cat*, Blake Snyder notes that from the first scenes of a movie, the audience needs a clear idea of "six things that need fixing" in the main character. Snyder admits it's an arbitrary number; that's not the point. He's talking about a "laundry list" of issues that the audience knows the character must come to terms with before the end of the film. Let's say your main character, a detective, has: 1) a fear of heights that, 2) caused his partner's death. He's so crushed that he, 3) retires from police work, and is, 4) reduced to hanging out with his ex-girlfriend. Sound familiar? By the end of Vertigo Scottie Ferguson will have fixed each one of his problems. And because Hitchcock set them up right from the get-go, we sympathize and identify with Scottie. Why? Because we all have fears. We've all made terrible mistakes. We've been down and out.

3. Use your pain
This wonderful piece of advice comes from Cheryl B. Klein in her book Second Sight. I love this tip because it asks us to channel the pain we get from rejection letters into our manuscripts! And specifically, into our main characters. "Use that emotion you're feeling from a reject to make your manuscript stronger--the grief, the pain, the anger, whatever it is. Give that to your characters when something goes wrong for them, and see what happens. There's a line in Emily Dickinson: I like a look of agony/because I know it's true." You have to have the courage to draw up your own demons if you truly want to make your character real. Just another way of saying that, yeah, writing a great character is going to be emotionally exhausting.

*The title of Snyder's book refers to yet another method for developing a sympathetic main character early in the story: He can be hard-boiled or unattractive, but audiences will love him if he "saves the cat" -- or some equivalent gesture of compassion and kindness.


  1. Hi! I'm in your YA/MG group for the Campaigners!

    Nice to meet you!

  2. Good advice :). Sometimes I have trouble with getting readers to connect with characters. I'll have to remember this post the next time I'm writing.

  3. Using my pain is tough. We are often taught to ignore that part of ourselves in the everyday and now I have to constantly access that well of emotion all the time as writer. It can be tough but it's usually worth it.

  4. Ugh, I'm having a hard time with this with my magic realism story. The MC is an assassin. Talk about not being easy to make her sympathetic! I'm working on that though.

    Fellow campaigner here. I write just about everything - from PBs on up to adults. Looking forward to getting better acquainted!

  5. Very nice points! I never really thought of using query rejection as added emotion into your manuscript (although I have with other life events) but that's a really interesting idea.

    I also especially like the observation about being emotionally exhausted after a writing session. That's a great way to tell if you've tapped into that emotional writing vein. Definitely worth the extra effort. :)

  6. Great post. I love that 'emotionally exhausted' feeling after an intense writing session :)

  7. I don't know that you can ever guarantee everyone is going to connect with your character. It's definitely worth thinking about though, when preparing to query!

  8. Bleh. I so need to work on #1. I heard the Jay Asher had writer's block for years after finishing 13 Reasons Why. He had invested himself so much into the story that he was emotionally incapable of writing anything else for awhile. If I could write something as riveting and emotionally real as his book, I think it might be worth it.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  9. Stopping by as part of the MG/YA campaign group. I had an agent tell me that she couldn't connect with one of my characters b/c she wasn't sympathetic enough. Apparently, I played up her faults a little too much :-)

  10. Great advice! Now to put it into practice... ah, there's the rub.