You Have My Sympathy. . . Not

The beginning stages of a novel are often the most fun.   Restrictions and limitations?  Fuhgeddaboudit.  This is the time when a book assumes mythic proportions in the author’s mind.  If not the best book ever written, this will be the best book the author has ever written, each sentence perfectly constructed, each scene building on the last until the story ends with a rousing and satisfying conclusion.  The reader will feel as if he/she has lost friends and yearn for their return.  All those things the author always wanted to say but couldn’t, will finally be said.

Then reality sets in.

Right now, in true Dickensian imitation, I’m poised somewhere between Great Expectations and Bleak House.  On one hand, I still believe my new idea will be, if not my best, certainly one of them.  On the other, the reality of the task before me is enough to make me turn off my computer and turn down my covers for a long winter’s nap.

In coming days I know I will wrestle with ever aspect of my new idea.  But first up, and most important?  I must find a way to make my protagonist sympathetic.

Sympathetic characters are a must in every novel.  Sympathetic is different from likeable.  As readers, we don’t have to love everything about the people on the pages we’re turning so avidly.  But we must connect; we must understand why they act as they do, even if we wish they didn’t.  We must see at least something of our own struggles inside them.

Unlike many readers I’ve always enjoyed characters who are not particularly sympathetic as a book opens, but go on to become so as the story progresses.  Circumstances bring out the best inside these people.  They change as their world changes around them.  Tracy Deloche in my Happiness Key series is an example.  But even as I shaped her personality and began to write her story, I knew Tracy would have detractors.  Some readers have no patience with characters who lack certain virtues.  Tracy was self-absorbed, angry at the turn her life had taken, and judgmental.  She was, at least at the beginning, hard to root for.

Readers want to root for the important characters in a novel.  Some readers, many in fact, won’t read further if they don’t like a character right at the beginning.  From a novelist’s viewpoint, however, if we begin with someone who is well nigh perfect, the only conflict we can introduce is external.  Things happen to the character, but there’s little need to make them happen inside him/her.  

Every readers roots for the virtuous protagonist of a novel to win whatever fight they’ve engaged in.  Against the most terrible odds?  Even better.  But have you ever hoped a true villain would get away without punishment?  Did you feel just the faintest twinge of satisfaction when Hannibel Lecter escaped at the end of Silence of the Lambs?  If so, you “connected” with this serial killer and cannibal.  While you abhored every terrible thing he had ever done, a part of Lecter was sympathetic, because Thomas Harris developed him with great skill and psychological insight.

The major character in the proposal I’m working on is someone who always believed she was living the “right” way and making the right choices.  Now, as the book begins, she realizes that at best, she has done the right things for the wrong reasons.  Of course I can’t say more than that now or why will you read the novel once it’s finished?  But at the heart of this conflict lies my first big struggle of many with my story.   I must find a way to make this character sympathetic, while, at the same time, my readers can see and believe she has lived a fairly unsympathetic life.

As novelists the things we believe about the world are woven on each page of every book we write.  I believe people can change for the better, although not without difficulty.  My favorite novelists agree with me, so they create characters who change, struggle and grow.  Now I’ll be required to do this again.  But how to keep my readers on the journey?

I don’t have an answer yet.  That will come as I work, toss, delete, insert, and wring my hands.  While I do, I’d love to hear from you right here or on my Facebook page.  What can’t you forgive a character?  What makes characters sympathetic enough that you want to read about their personal struggles?  Can you root for a character who is less than perfect?  Can you be patient as you read and hope to see a change?

Beginning a novel really is fun, so this time, come along with me   I promise to tell you more along the way, but let’s make this a conversation.  I’m interested in what you think, too.


  1. Debbie Haupt on November 29, 2010 at 11:32 am

    What a great article Emilie, and you are so right. There are certain characters who have done things that make me stop reading a novel, a heroine who just needs to be kicked in the butt all the time, because stupid is not the new smart. and I’m a relatively new reader to romance since the illness of my husband 6 years ago in fact before then it was crime drama or nothing, boy was I stupid, since then I’m a true genre jumper and enjoy all sorts of reads so when a romance book club I belong to suggested a “classic historical romance” as one of our featured books I jumped all over it. I won’t mention the author or the name of the novel but suffice it to say that this is a novel that has been re-issued many times and I couldn’t read it after the hero raped the heroine after repeatedly being told no, then they ride off in the sunset and live happily ever after. Not in my book and not in my life. It was degrading and despicable and I couldn’t read any more after that.
    Pretty much everything else I can forgive a character for especially a bad guy, they’re supposed to be evil, but not in my hero no way, no how never.

    • Emilie Richards on November 29, 2010 at 11:52 am

      It’s a fine dance we do, but I agree there are some things so despicable trying to turn a villain into a hero is impossible. Love your “stupid is not the new smart.” Oh, how true.

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