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.