I’ve been having a discussion about sustaining sympathy for characters, and I feel a lot of the problems arise because the characters aren’t real enough to the writer. Since the author doesn’t really know the ins and outs of their characters, they run out of gas. When the author runs out of gas, the reader quits reading because they’re bored.
Characters are the vehicles that propel the plot, so readers have to be engaged from beginning to end. A classic problem I see is the lack of character growth. We don’t go through life unchanged, so it’s unreasonable to think our characters do. Plots always have some intrinsic affect on the MC, and they can’t help but be impacted by what’s going on – just like real life. These are the qualities readers can sympathize with, that “Oh, yeah, I’ve felt that way, too.” Think of something you experienced in your own life – your own mini-plot – and reflect upon whether you’re still the same person you were before you experienced that personal plot.Think about the process you went through during that mini-plot.
I’ll use a really simplistic example. Perfect Hubby and I were in a horrible car accident a couple months ago. I was driving when we were shoved off the freeway at 70 mph by an SOB who never stopped. That experience affected me in ways I never expected. I’m not the same person anymore. As we careened into the concrete divider, I felt my soul grab hold of my body with a steely grip, “Nope, we’re not ready yet.” Because of that, I look at life through a different prism. I put up with far less crap because I understand life’s too short to waste my time. I value true friendships and the love of my family a lot more. I have a higher sense of not wasting time, yet understanding I need to stop and smell the roses. I appreciate the ability to openly share my fears and angst with Perfect Hubby because I understand and trust that he’ll listen. I also have a real problem with cars passing me on the driver’s side; I get really jumpy.
This is an evolutionary process that happened because of my mini-plot. It would be impossible for me to be the same person I was before. And this is how writers should view their characters because readers need to see how the plot affects the character, their relationships and their thinking. That’s how readers sustain their sympathy for your characters
In order to keep readers engaged in your characters, you need to put yourself in your character’s shoes and understand how your character thinks and reacts. In another post on character development, I talked about making a detailed list that outlines your character’s traits. Now you need to slip into their skin and decide who they are on a deeper level, where they’re headed (keeping in mind the plot will give them several choices in which to go), and where they ultimately end up. For example, given the type of person I am, it would be out of character for me to never drive again and depend on others to get me around town. It would be illogical to withdraw from everything and everyone. This would force the beagle to collect on all the bets she placed with those mangy Dalmations, who thought I’d turn into a mole person.
Your character’s evolutionary process has gotta make sense, and that comes from knowing your character inside and out. Your empathy allows you to grow your character to change in a believable manner. I’ve read books where I felt I knew the character better than the author and they changed in ways that didn’t make sense. I ended up hating the book because I believed (rightly or wrongly) the author didn’t have empathy for his MC and miswrote him.
I’ve read lots of books that had huge plots and lousy characters, and those were as boring s the beagle’s attempts at cooking meatloaf. Conversely, I’ve read thin plots with fabulous characters and loved them because my sympathies ran at peak power. Whichever way you go, make sure your characters don’t drag your story down into oblivion. Those usually equal a rejection letter or an angry reader. Both suck stale Twinkie cream.