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.