Note: This is not a rant on “sympathetic characters,” which tends to get parsed as “characters the reader will sympathize with.” This is about characters who have the faculty of sympathy themselves for other characters in the story, and letting them express it.
1) Remember that there are different kinds of sympathy.
I’ve read many stories where the protagonist is more sympathetic towards animals than towards humans, for example. (Nothing wrong with this in principle, but see point 2). There’s also sympathy with a cause, sympathy with people in one mood and not another—“I’ll forgive you when you’re really sorry for what you’ve done!”—and, in fantasy at least, sympathy with a sentient species not one’s own.
Now, on one hand, this is great for characterization. Know what your character has sympathy for, and you have your hand on something important about her, a far more important trait, I think, than whether she likes sliced eels or not. Characters with mixed and partial sympathies are usually complex people. People who oppose each other because of being deeply committed to differing sides make for fascinating conflicts. (See point 3). Trying to learn how exactly that sympathy developed and why she maintains it, especially if she does so against great opposition, can grow a backstory less potted than you might have been tempted to make it.
On the other hand, sympathy is sometimes abused as a way of getting reader sympathy for the character, or as shorthand for another set of traits that it would be much more trouble to show.
2) A character can have one-way sympathy and lack two-way sympathy.
To return to the case of the character who rushes in to stop a horse from being beaten but would not lift a finger or give a damn about another human being in the same position—treated well, this is a complex person. Not treated well, this leads to the case of the person whom we know is “good” because she cares for animals, but is not treated well by the Damn Rest of the World, who just can’t see her special traits and mocks her for them. Supposedly, her lack of sympathy with other human beings is their fault, and not hers.
I’m horribly afraid that this is done simply because sympathy with most animals is a one-way street. The protagonist can shower love and care on them without expecting anything in return but their companionship. Those animals who do return affection, of course, are not usually presented as doing it because they “sympathize” with the protagonist, but as a natural result of her love and care. (I’m excluding magical and sentient animals here).
However, human, or other sentient being, sympathy is a two-way street. That means that, while I can easily accept stories of outcast and exile protagonists if they’re done well, or stories of people who sympathize with others but get treated shittily in return, I cannot accept that the heroine really possesses the faculty of human sympathy when she makes no effort at all to reach out.
So she loves animals. That doesn’t mean she has other kinds of sympathy.
So she has a shitty life. That doesn’t mean she has a right to sympathy from others. If she doesn’t reach out, if she automatically assumes that most people are against her before they have a chance to open their mouths, if she doesn’t ever make gestures that show she’s willing to be sympathetic, then yeah, I can see why she wouldn’t get much sympathy in return.
She might have been burned by the world and so is prickly and snappish for that reason, but, again, there’s the reason she’s putting strangers off right there. I get irritated when the author is prone to scold her secondary characters for backing away in front of the protagonist’s defense mechanisms that are designed to cause them to back away. I wouldn’t force my sympathy on someone who didn’t seem to want it, either. Sooner or later, the protagonist has to take some of the effort of friendships and compassion and common bonds on her own shoulders, not just be lavished with them.
Where does that problem come from? I tend to trace it back to making the heroine the center of the fictional universe, again. The other characters are of course expected to offer a heroine like that sympathy even if she never shows it to them, because she is presented as someone who inherently deserves it. And if they don’t, they are evil. And of course she loves animals, because it costs her almost no effort to connect with them, and shows that she’s being the opposite of those Evil Humans, again.
Sympathy requires commonality, people, not continual emphasis of how much the heroine has suffered over everyone else. (See point 4).
3) Sympathizers can make great opponents for other sympathizers.
Say Character A is irrevocably committed to making sure that a small minority of people in her country can make a place for themselves after centuries of oppression and silence. Opposing her is Character B—not one who is working for the status quo, because then it’s very easy to turn her into a traitor and make her see how much worse Character A’s people have it, but one who is working for another minority group, likewise deeply committed to them. Given the country’s set-up, there are only a certain number of seats in the parliament, and these two groups are both fighting to make sure that their people get them, competing with the majority group and each other.
This is a much more interesting conflict than “Good People vs. Evil People,” or “People for the Self-Evidently Right and Noble Group vs. People for the Self-Evidently Wrong and Cruel Group.” And, of course, as long as you give both groups legitimate grievances and both characters reasons to stay committed, rather than making one group tortured for centuries while the other only formed last week, and one character strong as stone while the other wavers like a reed and changes sides the moment the other character says “I love you” to her. And that’s not to mention the power dynamics with the majority group, too, and any other minorities you have, and what might happen if some of the minority groups decided to ally rather than struggle.
(Look, I never said it was easy to write this kind of conflict).
Common bonds are understandable, rely on character traits and internal conflicts rather than forced and unconvincing external ones, have the potential to get the reader sympathizing with both sides, and show the complexity of a situation. I want to know what more you could ask for.
4) Commonality, community, sameness.
A lot of fantasy emphasizes difference. The unique protagonist with special powers is the usual hero. I’ve already mentioned, in the last rant, the prevalence of outcasts (who are often outcast for no fault of their own) and people who break their society’s rules and receive shunning and criticism in return. When the protagonist finds other people to act with, whether that’s in saving the world or on a smaller scale, the author usually makes sure to emphasize that they’re also a ragtag band of survivors, most displaced from their original homes. Sometimes the protagonist does find a cohesive community, but in that case they’re different from the rest of the world around them—often by means of magic or religion.
And there’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s not to say that difference is the only possible virtue, either, or the only source of stories. Nor is it inherently good to be different from everyone else. Ordinary and normal people have their stories too. (Horror knows this very well).
Sympathy and compassion require the ability to look past differences and see something worth responding to in another person. Sometimes, there may be nothing worth responding to. But a protagonist who has the quality of sympathy will usually find it. More, she’ll be troubled to go looking for it, to reach out, rather than always making the second move or only seeing what separates her from others.
I think this is the harder type of story to write. Differences are often more visible than commonalities, and they might seem to automatically produce the more exciting stories. But a sympathetic protagonist can still have excellent, story-producing qualities that have nothing to do with magic or a shitty life—curiosity, compassion, the will to see what others might miss, subtle people skills, and the ability to be open to those who might not seem to respect or want openness. (See point 6).
5) Sympathy isn’t a matter of just words and gestures.
That means that both of the following situations are equally bad:
- An omniscient narrator who tells me that a princess loves everyone in the world and then shows her treating her servants badly.
- A narrator who shows a character making gestures of sympathy but never bothers to articulate her motives.
I think sympathy badly needs support from both. In the first case, of course, either the author is being ironic and the princess self-deluding (I hope so) or the author is simply ignoring the blatant self-contradiction, in which case the story needs an overhaul. This is the type of problem that’s more prevalent.
I’ve seen the second, though. For my money, the worst example is the character who says “I love you” out of the blue to someone else. Huh? Why’d she do that? If we don’t get her viewpoint and no signs or statements beforehand that she’s in love, I’m suspicious of the character’s motives. It is perfectly possible to make sympathetic gestures while having no sympathetic motive at heart—to win approval, to get another person to trust you, to play a game with someone else’s feelings, because you feel it’s socially expected of you. That means that I don’t accept a character as sympathetic if the author shows them grasping hands and clasping shoulders and speaking the words, but doesn’t support it with any telling or secondary showing to indicate that they actually feel the emotions they’re portraying.
Remember: sympathy takes more effort than that. Creating robotic characters who switch their emotions on and off isn’t it.
So what are some good ways of showing the quality of sympathy?
6) Some qualities of sympathy.
Of course, these things can indicate other character traits, too, but they’re ways of showing sympathy as well as telling it.
- A good listening ear.
- A genuine interest in other people, what they have to say, and what they’re doing.
- Generosity with no thought of return.
- Empathy—the ability to imagine what they would feel like if the other person’s circumstances happened to them.
- A dislike of pain or suffering of any kind, whether or not they’re feeling it, and an inclination to relieve it.
- Curiosity, and a tendency to ask questions.
- Ability to make the first move and reach out to someone else, even if they think they’re likely to be rebuffed.
- Ability to decide when to speak and when to keep silent, and which the person needs just then.
- Respect for other people’s emotions and decisions (note that they don’t have to share them or really think that they’re a good idea).
- Tempered criticism.
- A knowledge of their own limitations (many heroes and heroines don’t have this, and end up exhausting themselves or putting their own or others’ lives in danger through trying to do too much).
- A thick skin to insults.
- A sense of humor.
- Desire to put some effort into relationships, rather than let them lapse or force the other person to have all the work of maintaining them.
- A willingness to fix one’s own mistakes when they’re made out of misplaced sympathy, rather than hide from them.
I don’t think I’ve read of a character who has all those, all the time, and of course you’re going to want character flaws to balance them. But what strikes me in looking over the list is how easy they would be to include in a whole, rounded human being, and yet how rarely I’ve seen them in most heroes of fantasy novels. The proactive reaching out seems to be especially rare, which is really damn sad when you think about it. Too many heroes are too afraid of making a mistake, and far too many, while having an exquisite awareness of their own feelings, never seem to think that maybe other people react badly because of hard times in their own lives, rather than because they’re jealous or hateful or dirty traitors.
7) Sympathy != “Can’t we all just get along?”
On occasion, depending on what the occasion is, a sympathetic person might have to be pretty damn tough. For example, preventing someone from committing suicide is not an easy or a pretty task, and, at least at first, it’s likely to be a thankless one. No pushovers in that situation, and no holding of hands and singing Kumbaya either.
Sometimes, the best course might be imprisoning a person, preventing him from seeing someone he really wants to see but who would hurt him, forcing him to face the consequences of his own mistakes, or yelling at him that he’s an idiot. Sympathy doesn’t always cure disagreements, and can cause them. And a sympathetic person can certainly make mistakes; the classic one in many fantasy novels is underestimating another person’s ability to face battle (though, there, the person who underestimates another is distinctlyunsympathetic 99% of the time, which attributes the whole thing to jealousy or hatred again). But none of that equates to being a pushover.
I’ve seen some justifications of novels and stories where all the characters ate hateful to each other as, “Well, otherwise it isn’t realistic.” Bullshit. Introducing a little sympathy into your story doesn’t lead you down a path of big-eyed bunnies and kitties. Depending on what you do with her, a sympathetic person can make another person’s life hell, because she might get it into her head that he needs to face all the things he’s been hiding from in order to heal.
I am currently pondering doing the next rant on why complexity is just so damn great.