Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sympathetic Fictional Characters

Our human sensibilities can be turned on and off like a light switch. For the most part they are off for people we don't know. This is adaptive. Can you imagine what life would be like if we became as emotionally involved in the death of a stranger as in the death of our mother? What if you lived in Africa, where there are a thousand ways to die and by the time you're twenty, dozens of people you know have met untimely death? When you are flipping through television stations, scenes of mass havoc evoke no emotion from you, do they? Why? Because you don't care about those people.

So, every storyteller must get her audience to care about the characters. News photographers use art to get you care. As a writer you do this by gaining the reader's sympathy for your characters.

We more readily sympathize with some types of people than others. We more readily sympathize with the underdog in a sporting event. Charities, for example, focus on children because they know that we sympathize more readily with children than adults. So, all it takes is an artistic two-second shot of a poor child to elicit sympathy and win contributions. But only a masterful author can get people to sympathize with an imprisoned criminal. And sympathy for him must be earned the hard way: we must get to know him.

This is why your typical made-for-television movie begins with scenes of the happy family beginning another typical, happy day in their home . . . before the disaster befalls that is their story. In this way the scriptwriter lets the audience get to know the characters. She induces the audience to like them. Then, when disaster occurs, we care and we sympathize with their loss. Boom — when the experience thus takes on an emotional dimension, we become involved. Like any dream, at some level we know it's just a dream, but the emotion makes it seem so real. We want to see this family overcome catastrophe, and that is why we watch the movie.

This isn't the only way, or the best way, to get your readers emotionally involved in a story. In fact, this "happy-opening" device is overused, especially on TV. But it gets the job done efficiently.

Though you must elicit reader sympathy for your protagonist, you often cannot do so immediately. For example, you may have to set up the situation for him as Shakespeare does in the opening of Hamlet. Or, your protagonist may not be a character the reader will readily sympathise with. But, since you have only minutes to hook your reader (if that), touch his emotions immediately. In the opening plunge some character he can readily sympathize with into a situation that evokes emotion.

The essence of sympathy is favor. The surest way to get it is to make the reader feel sorry for this character. You can do this with any situation that makes the character suffer physically, mentally, or spiritually — such as humiliation, loneliness, oppression, danger, deprivation, or cruelty.

When your protagonist isn't a character the reader will readily sympathize with, open with a sympathetic character that you can transfer reader sympathy through. Mario Puzzo gives a masterful example of this device in The Godfather. Don Corleone, the Godfather, is anything but a character the reader can readily sympathize with. So, the story opens with a man who seeks justice from Corleone against men the courts let off for assaulting his daughter. Our sympathy (favor) is transferred through him to the Godfather with this noble cause.

A character needn't be admirable to be sympathetic. He may be downright reprehensible, as the Godfather, or pathetic and wretched.

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