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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Four): Jeopardy

Okay.  I've saved the obvious for last.  The biggest and most blatant way to stir up sympathy is to place a protagonist in mortal peril.  Remember my earlier posts on tension?  Here's another example of a technique that serves a dual purpose.  Jeopardizing a character creates equal parts sympathy and tension -- unless the protagonist is so unlikeable readers want his story to end.  (I've read a few of these.  I didn't make it halfway through the book.)

Imagine The Wizard of Oz without the Wicked Witch of the West pursuing Dorothy at every turn.  How much of the story's impact would be lost without this plot device?  How easy would it be to become complacent about Dorothy's fate?  Similarly, in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, the immediate danger posed by the relentless Ringwraiths makes us more sympathetic to Frodo's plight.  In The Elfstones of Shannara, Terry Brooks achieves this effect by sending the bloodthirsty Reaper after his protagonists.

A character doesn't necessarily need to be pursued by murderous villains to find herself in jeopardy.  The threat of a deadly disease, financial ruin, heartbreak, or ostracism can also drum up reader sympathy.  Find a story without elements of jeopardy embedded in the plot and you'll probably find a story you quickly lose interest in.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Three): Vulnerability

Vulnerability.  We've all experienced it at one point or another.  It was emotional when you were trying to work up the courage to ask that cute girl to the junior prom.  It was physical when you faced the class bully in the parking lot after school.  The right amount of vulnerability at the right time can convince a reader to sympathize with a protagonist.

In his Series of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) introduces us to three highly vulnerable protagonists.  Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are children.  Violet, the oldest, is only fourteen while the youngest, Sunny, has barely started cutting her baby teeth.  What's more vulnerable than a child?  Try three children who have just been orphaned and placed in the hands of a despicable relative bent upon exploiting them.

Throughout the series, Snicket places the Baudelaires in one vulnerable situation after another.  First, creepy old Count Olaf tries to marry young Violet to get at her inheritance.  When the children escape, he systematically kills off every adult who attempts to aid them.  Eventually, he even succeeds in turning the police against the children by framing them for his own supposed death.

James Patterson preps his readers within the first three chapters of his YA novel Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment.  After escaping a secret lab where she and her friends have been genetically altered and equipped with wings, Max and the 'Flock' hide out in an out-of-the-way house high up in the mountains.  Things go terribly wrong, however, when a pack of mutant half-wolf, half-human creatures kidnap Angel, the youngest member of the Flock, and transport her back to the terrifying lab.

Patterson develops Angel's vulnerability by describing her personal space as being "like a nest -- full of stuffed animals, books, most of her clothes."  She has "blonde curls" and Max loves Angel most because Angel is "just so incredibly sweet and loving herself."  By the time the evil Erasers show up to grab her, readers are quickly ready to worry about Angel and to root for Max to save her.

Anytime you wish to open a door to reader sympathy, consider placing one of your characters in a position of extreme emotional or physical vulnerability. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part Two): Hardship

A vital skill every writer must learn is how to convince readers to emotionally invest themselves in the protagonist's failure or success.  They must celebrate with him when things go well and worry about him when things don't.  A simple way to win reader sympathy is to place a likable character in the midst of hardship.


J. K. Rowling uses Harry Potter's misfortunes to lure us into her young protagonist's story.  In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone we quickly learn that Harry's parents have been murdered then watch him suffer abuses in the Dursley household.  Harry lives under the stairs, receives a pair of Uncle Vernon's used socks as a birthday present, and is constantly tormented by Dudley and his friends.  Is it any wonder we silently cheer for him when he finally escapes to Hogwarts?


This doesn't just work with likable characters.  Even an unsavory one -- if his life has been hard enough -- can win our grudging sympathy.  Take Gollum from J.R.R. Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example.  As Gollum travels with Frodo, the unfortunate details of his past life slowly begin to unfold.  We learn that he was once named Smeagol and lived among friends and family.  We see how the ring warped his mind, turning him into the treacherous he has become.  We watch the 'good vs. evil' battle between his split personalities and might even come, as Frodo does, to pity Gollum while simultaneously loathing him.

Place your character in the midst of hardship.  Take away his friends, family, home, or all of the above.  The more difficult things become for your protagonist, the more likely it is readers will start to care about him.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Creating Sympathy (Part One): The Underdog



What do Rocky Balboa, Dorothy Gale, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen have in common?  Other than the interesting fact that each character's name has a symbolic tie-in to nature, the answer is they're classic examples of "underdogs." 

No, I'm not talking about flying canines in red capes.  I'm referring to a useful way to build sympathy for your character.  Think David and Goliath, cornered gazelle against rampaging lion, Cowboys versus Aliens.  To get your audience rooting for your protagonists, sometimes all you need is to put them up against vastly overwhelming odds.

In the Hunger Games Suzanne Collins effectively uses this technique not only with her major characters but also with minor ones.  Take Rue, the diminutive contestant from District 11, for example. While Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are preparing for the bloodshed and destruction of the gladitorial-like Hunger Games, Rue shadows them from practice station to practice station. Katniss notices how Rue looks like "a bird ready to take flight," realizes Rue couldn't "tip the scales at 70 pounds," and broods about how the small girl will be up against "a 220-pound male with a sword."  With a few masterfully chosen descriptions, Ms. Collins garners immediate reader sympathy for Rue.

How about Rocky Balboa versus Ivan Drago in the fourth installment of the Rocky films?  Ivan trains with hi-tech machinery, has an 1800 pounds-per-square-inch punch, and has already killed world champion Apollo Creed in the ring.

Overwhelming odds equals underdog.  Underdog equals sympathy.  Find a successful story, and you're likely to find an "underdog."