Thursday 31 January 2013

Sympathetic Characters Part 6: Unfairness

Over the last five posts I have discussed the various ways to elicit sympathy from the reader. But in all of these cases, it is possible to heighten the effect simply by showing the character to be undeserving of the punishment he’s being forced to undergo.

We all have an innate sense of right and wrong. Even when life proves to be oblivious to this idea, and even when we ourselves treat others unjustly, for some reason we cling to this concept of fairness.

Unfairness can come from a person, an institution or the universe. There’s no real logic behind why we expect good things to happen to good people and bad people to be punished (experience certainly doesn’t suggest either will happen very often), but we do. And this means a character who is treated unfairly is one who is probably going to win the sympathy of the reader.

Bad luck or bad timing; if someone dies just when you need them most; when an injustice goes uncorrected; when someone is born handicapped in some way. These sorts of things affect a reader’s sense of fair play. 

The more defenceless a character is to do anything about it the more we feel for them.  If he could save himself but chooses not to (for noble reasons), even better. If there are people around to witness his humiliation, extra bonus points.

Just about any situation that creates sympathy for a character will be many times more effective if you can demonstrate he is undeserving of such treatment. That doesn’t mean he has to be a saint. The important thing is how he acts at the time we see him undergo his trials.

So, for example, if he comes home early to find his wife in bed with his best friend, then you can increase the reader’s sympathy for him if you make it clear the reason he came home early was to surprise her with a gift.

Or, if he gets hit by a car and ends up in the ICU, then you can increase the level of sympathy if the reason for the accident was he rushed into the road to save a child.

Those are very corny examples, but my point is that it’s not that the character is undeserving in general that counts (it’s very difficult to establish something that broad in a story, not without using up many pages), it’s that he’s undeserving of bad things in that instant.

When focusing on the thing that happens to the character that elicits the reader’s emotional reaction, it’s easy to forget the context it’s happening in. A guy who finds his wife in bed with another guy is reason enough to feel pity for him. But that kind of generic pity won’t always stick.

In some cases it will be enough (a parent who loses a child doesn’t really need any more than that information, for example), but when you do need to turn it up a notch, showing the character as deserving better than he's getting can do the trick.

But you should remember that it is a trick. Manipulating a reader’s emotions is definitely part of what a writer does, but once you figure out how to do it, you can be tempted to  abuse that power. It’s easy to go over the top and fall into melodrama. Once you do that it might even become funny. A woman who loses her child giving birth, her husband leaves with her best friend and then the house catches on fire, all on the same evening, is going to seem ridiculous.
Over the last six posts I’ve tried to show that generating sympathy for a character can come in many shapes and sizes. Feeling pity is a strong emotion and can form a very quick attachment between reader and character.

But sympathy is not the only way to engage interest in a character. In the next part of this series on how to form strong bonds between readers and characters we’ll take a look at relatability and identifying with a character.
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Other posts in the series can be found here:

Sympathetic Characters Part 1: Danger

Sympathetic Characters Part 2: Suffering

Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Souls 

Sympathetic Characters Part 4: Outcasts

Sympathetic Characters Part 5: Betrayal

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


Francene Stanley said...

Quite right. For some reason we become the judge of what should or shouldn't happen. There's no way to turn this inner voice off. I must remember that for my next heroine.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Life isn't fair - get over it!
This aspect applied to my main character as well. It's never shown, but you find out that most of his childhood was 'unfair.'

Al Diaz said...

I think I do this without knowing what I'm doing... Well, now I know. Thanks!

mooderino said...

@Francene - oh, that inner voice.

@Alex - but it would be so great if it was.

@Al - you're welcome!

Jack Dowden said...

Nearly every story, when you look at it through a certain lens, revolves around 'unfairness.' It's unfair that Frodo has to take the Ring to Mordor, it's unfair that Spider-Man's uncle died, it's unfair that the guy in Memento can't remember anything for longer than twenty minutes or so. More so than any of the other aspects you've written about here, I would say unfairness is the one most commonly used, because it's the most relatable. We're all dealing with something that's unfair in our own lives. It's unfair that we're not making more money, or that we don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend, or can't get pregnant, or live in a bad place, etc. It may not be entirely justified, but that doesn't mean it's not felt. Good points and excellent post.

mooderino said...

@Jack - I think if you can take it beyond a character who does nothing and ends up suffering, to a character who actually does something worth admiring, but gets punished instead, you can take it to another level.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

American Horror Story explored this particular theme very well this last season.

Michael Di Gesu said...

HI, Mood,

You are so right .... Often I see the MELODRAMA, and it is laughable. Writing needs to be balanced for it to create the right emotion.

mooderino said...

@Michael - I think if I came back as a ghost I'd be pretty cool about it. No taxes and get into any cinema for free.

@Michael - I think balance is hard to get right initially, but once you get it, it becomes a lot easier.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I agree that generating sympathy for a character can come in many shapes and sizes. I am currently trying to work on that aspect in my books.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - I'm working on it too. The concept is fairly easy to get, but making it work in a story without being too obvious is quite tricky.

Golden Eagle said...

"A woman who loses her child giving birth, her husband leaves with her best friend and then the house catches on fire, all on the same evening..."

Sounds like a bestseller to me. :P Melodrama seems to catch an awful lot of readers' attention, anyway--though it gets tiresome fast.

mooderino said...

@Golden - there are certain genres where readers don't mind melodrama, prefer it even, but in most cases it just feel silly.

Rusty Carl said...

Damn. My idea of combining all the first five traits into an opening paragraph of my story has been shot. Back to the drawing board. Great series of posts.

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