Monday, 21 January 2013

Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Souls

So far in this series on creating sympathy, I’ve dealt with the extreme end of the spectrum. Danger and suffering are pretty broad, easy to grasp concepts. Readers who encounter these will find it hard to resist feeling concern for the characters in the story. However, they are also quite simplistic and blunt, and once the immediate danger/suffering passes, the concern for them will also.

There are more subtle ways to evoke sympathy in the reader. When readers work out what’s going on for themselves, it often has a more powerful and lasting effect than the more obvious methods described already.

Someone who is pretending not to be hurt or upset, immediately interests a reader. If your character is lonely and unhappy but acts like they’re perfectly fine in front of others, that kind of behaviour can be both appealing and intriguing.

What’s important though is that the reader is aware of the character’s true condition. It can be tempting to hold back this information and then reveal it later, but that is wasting a solid opportunity for engaging your audience. The reader will understand why the character was acting the way he was, but you won’t get the benefit of any emotional attachment.

Only when readers know the character is faking it do we feel sympathy for their predicament. You don’t have to immediately reveal the specifics of why they’re behaving in this way, but the quicker you let them know the character is not being truthful, the better. And if you can do it visually (rather than in monologue or narration) it will be more impactful.

When we see the character say one thing but do another, when they hide something or change the way they act in the presence of particular people, then that will trigger interest. When the reader finds out the reason for the behaviour, that will trigger emotion

If the reason is to do with embarrassment or fear (how he feels about himself), the reader will relate on a personal level. If the reason is to do with not wanting others to feel pity for him or to protect them in some way (how he feels about others), then the reader will relate on a universal level and emotional ties will be much stronger for the reader. 

If the reason is purely technical, for example if he is pretending to be going out for a drink with the boys when he’s really meeting with them to plan a bank heist, then that won’t have any emotional  intrigue, although it will still hold intellectual interest.

The character’s emotional need to keep the secret plays a big part in how the reader will react. And the more exact that reason, the better.

If a man doesn’t want a woman at work to know he’s in love with her because he doesn’t want to get rejected, that’s too vague and generic to really grab the attention on an emotional level.

If he’s dating his boss, but doesn’t want his other colleagues to know it’s against the rules so they’d both lose their jobs, that narrows the focus and increases emotional interest. 

If the man dumps the co-worker he’s dating but really still loves her, only he knows she’s about to be offered a promotion to the Paris office, which has always been her dream, and she won’t go if he’s in the picture, then the reader will be much more emotionally attached. The reason being, the character is acting out of concern for someone else.

Being able to recognise this hierarchy, that emotional response of the reader is affected by character’s motivation, is something that can be used against the reader. You can turn up the pressure on the character to great effect.

Let's say the man who dumps the girl going to Paris does such a good job of convincing her he’s not interested anymore that she starts dating someone else, and the Paris move is three months off, how he deals with the situation can strongly engage reader sympathy. And if then she falls for this new guy and decides to turn down the Paris job, then what’s he going to do? There’s no better hook into emotion than a selfless act that’s harshly punished.

It helps if the character is hiding his true feelings from a specific person or persons rather than the world at large. This makes it easier to make the feelings more visceral, especially when it comes to the part of the story where the his true feelings are revealed.

Whereas keeping the truth from the reader is a big mistake, keeping it from other characters is vital. And even more vital is at some point making sure the person the character most doesn’t want to find out, finds out. 

This is key to using this technique effectively. Whenever a character is hiding something, it immediately raises the question of when will he get found out. This creates suspense and tension, and you really don’t want to waste this. Allowing people to get suspicious, close calls and finding a way to get those who do find out to keep quiet, all adds to the reader’s investment in the character.

Eventually, though, it has to come out to the one person the character most dreads finding out, whether it’s a loved one or an enemy or a boss. The person that will cause most suffering for the character—or at least that they think will do so—has to find out. You can’t have lots of close calls and worrying and then Phew! got away with it. Well, obviously you can do that, but you’d be missing out on a fantastic opportunity for a climactic moment.

Why they’re pretending and how the truth is exposed are both big moments in getting readers to bond with the character, and as such are worth spending some time on.

But the more excruciating you can make it the better. You need to give a sense of how bad it would be if people found out (from the character’s perspective), and then you need to make it turn out even worse (at least at first) when they do find out. And they must find out.

Of course, not everyone chooses to keep themselves to themselves. Some people have no other choice. More on that in the next post—Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet .Cheers.

Other posts in the series can be found here:

Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger

Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering

And don't forget to check out the latest posts from other top bloggers at The Funnily Enough


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think I held back the truth about my main character a little too long in the first book. Then again, he didn't even realize it until halfway through the story.
Good advice, as always!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I like this advice. It gives me direction in an online story I've been working on. I need to heap on the suffering! Thanks Moody.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I think finding the right balance is totally a personal thing.

@Michael - Sometimes I wonder if I'm just encouraging people to do terrible things...

Michael Di Gesu said...

As always, terrific examples for us to really GET THE Point. I like the selfless act getting punished angle. That is brilliant.

mooderino said...

@Michael - cheers!

nutschell said...

love this series! Readers always go for the character who acts out of selflessness.

mooderino said...

@nutschell - and they get extra mad at the character who acts selfless but really isn't. Always great to see that guy get his just desserts.

Elise Fallson said...

I'm reading Anticipation of the Penitent by Nancy LaRonda Johnson. The mc in her novel has a big, horrifying secret. She hides this secret from other characters until finally she reveals the truth. Despite the truly awful things the mc is involved in, I still can't help but feel sympathetic on some level with this character. This is a book that I would normally never pick up, not my genre of choice, BUT I'm glad Nancy sent it to me because the characters are so well written, that I've found myself emotionally invested in this horrifying story and I'm less than 100 pages in.

mooderino said...

@Elise - reluctant emotional attachment is a powerful tool for the writer to use on her victims, er, I mean readers.

Anonymous said...

You give great advice! Just wondering... have you ever created an article on cliches in fantasy? I'm starting to write a book and I want it to be as original as possible.

dolorah said...

Good points here. Sorry, I didn't comment on all the posts but enjoyed them all the same.


mooderino said...

@Anon - no, but there are lots of fantasy specific sites that cover that sort of thing. Google will bring up a bunch.

@Donna - Cheers, your comments are always welcome.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I've ben a bit scarce online lately, but this is a fantastic post and now I must go read the leading up sympathy posts. I always feel most sympathetic with the characters that make the worst mistakes, usually the bad guy... or maybe that's empathy.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - getting the reader to empathise with characters other than the MC is a sign of a good book, I think.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I wonder if some of these are harder to do depending on what person you are writing in. I mean, if you're in first person, it may be hard to say...have the protag hide something from the reader.

Jack Dowden said...

This is good. I've been trying to get a handle on a character I've been writing, and you just did it for me. Thanks! My character puts up a front for his friends, cracks jokes, smiles, acts fine, but when he's alone at night he chain smokes to calm himself and shakes. I think you've really hit the nail on the head with the difference between keeping characters in the dark and keeping the readers in the dark. Not too many people realize there's a HUGE difference. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Michael - I think it can be harder in some POV's but still possible. Requires a little common sense thought, You can't have the first person narrator endlessly refer to something in his past and not reveal it until the last page, that would be very frustrating. But you can hint at something and foreshadow it.

@Jack - YVW!

Unknown said...

Great advice offered here. I was especially intrigued by what to reveal and hide from the reader about the MC vs. other characters. It gives me a lot to think about when working on my own novel. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@CS - cheers.

Al Diaz said...

Excellent information. I will take it into consideration.

Rusty Carl said...

I think I like this installment the best of this series that I've read so far... it really resonates.

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - Please do.

@Rusty - If only I put this much effort into my actual story writing...

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