The Character Sympathy Hack

Today while driving I listened to the most recent episode of Writing Excuses, one of my favorite writing podcasts. The episode was titled Three Pronged Character Development, and you NEED to listen to it.

The episode covers a character creation theory that I think is absolutely genius. Imagine three sliding knobs (the kind you’d see on a DJ’s mixing equipment) representing three universal aspects of a character:

  •  Sympathy – How much you like, admire, respect, or otherwise sympathize with a character.
  •  Competence – The skillfulness with which they overcome obstacles.
  •  Proactivity – The character’s drive and motivation to enact change in their own life, and the lives of others.

In order to create a compelling character, you have to find the right balance between these three things. If all of them are too low, everyone hates your character. If all of them are too high, you have a Mary Sue on your hands and (guess what?) everyone hates your character. When I say hate, I don’t mean the good kind of hate that you occasionally want for your villains. This is the kind of hate that makes readers uninterested in reading further. Setting every slider at around 50 will give you a reasonably engaging–if somewhat unremarkable–character. If you slide one of them way down, you need to raise something else in order to compensate.

A good villain, or a good anti-hero, usually tends to be lower on sympathy, but higher on competence and proactivity. Or you can slide the competence level down a smidge and raise the proactivity. A protagonist that is higher on sympathy and proactivity, but is a little less stellar in competence, usually gives us our endearingly bumbling heroes. Pushing all three up as far as we can gives us our Superman-esque characters.

I think this is a solid model, but my analysis varies a little from the Writing Excuses crowd at this point.

I don’t think it’s possible to set all the sliders to 100. Both the Competence and Proactivity sliders are dependent on the Sympathy slider. This means maxing out competence and proactivity will lower the sympathy slider. If someone is super competent and cool all the time, they start to become unrelatable, and the ability to relate and empathize with a character is essential to sympathy.

However, there’s a hack for that. It’s called suffering.

As humans, we’re social creatures, and we’re hard-wired to sympathize with another person’s pain. This makes suffering an incredibly powerful tool when attempting to make your reader care more about your character.

Suffering vs. Sympathy

I don’t automatically lump suffering under the heading of sympathy because it’s not a strictly necessary element for sympathy. Used in the context of writing, character sympathy is a combination of personality and morality that we find agreeable. Generally speaking, you need both.

A character who is charming and personable, but he kills puppies for fun = not sympathetic.
A character who is really, really good but is dull as a box of rocks = also not sympathetic.

Granted, sympathy is the most subjective of all the sliders, as each reader’s preferences and moral codes will differ–but we can usually make some good generalizations that will apply to most of your readers. Suffering impacts sympathy, but it’s not a required element.

Suffering vs. Challenge

Suffering is also not the same as being challenged. It’s personal. Racing against time to stop a terrorist attack in the space of 24 hours is a challenge for your character, but doesn’t necessarily cause suffering. Being captured by said terrorists and tortured, or knowing that your family will almost certainly be killed in the attack–that’s suffering.

Using Suffering as a Sympathy Hack

I call suffering a hack, because it alters the dynamic of the three existing sliders. If you have a character whose competence and proactivity sliders are very, very high, making them really suffer will create more reader sympathy than would otherwise be possible.

Also, if you need two of the sliders to be very low–for instance, if you have a character who is likeable and has a good heart, but is not very competent or proactive, suffering will allow you to amplify their already high sympathy slider to compensate for those deficits.

Suffering to Create Tension

One of the struggles in genre fiction is how to give a story tension without having to whip out an M. Night Shyamalan reversal at the end of each book. For those of us who are avid genre readers, the number of novels in which the heroes do not eventually triumph over adversity are in the minority. So, if you can be pretty sure that the protagonists will win, where does the tension come from?

You guessed it. By making your characters suffer, you demonstrate your willingness to do so in the future. The most important question is no longer ‘Will they win?’ but ‘How much will it cost them?’ This is especially effective if you make what the character wants, and what they must do mutually exclusive.

Suffering and Character Arc

One of the difficulties with the slider model is that in order to give your character a satisfying arc, they need to have room to grow. That usually means starting them off with one (and usually more) sliders on the low side. In the Hero’s Journey, the hero often starts with high sympathy, but is low on competence and proactivity. The competence and proactivity levels rise as the character progresses along their arc.

The eternal struggle is avoiding the whiny farmboy syndrome. How do you give your character room to grow without making them intolerable?

Good news. There’s a hack for that.

2 comments

  • C.J.

    Fascinating stuff! I had not thought about it that way, but it makes total sense now I do think about it. I never realised how much of a sadist I’d have to become when I started writing! But it makes sense–especially when–as you say–the reader is pretty sure your protagonist is going to win in the end. So the only question left is what winning is going to cost. The only other alternative would be to do a GRRM and kill them off anyway, which can be good, now and then, but if done too much would end up being predictable in itself, I’d think? And then you’d face the problem of the reader not wanting to get too attached to any of the characters in case they were next. 

    So I think the main point I’m taking from this, and the sliders, is balance. If you get the balance right, your characters will draw the reader in, and they will need to know what happens to them.

    And thanks for the link, I’ll go off and listen to it. 

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