Sympathetic and Unsympathetic Characters. Black and White or Shades of Gray?

**No real spoilers, but I do give some insights about The Swallow’s Nest, so beware.

unsympatheticPart of the joy of publishing a book is learning that you’ve reached readers with your words.

The Joyful:

Sometimes I’ve brought my readers hours of pleasurable reading. Some of you have told me that you were able to lose yourself in my stories when you were going through hardships and needed that mental and emotional break. Others have said that a character I created helped you understand a real-life character, someone you were friends with or related to, whom you had never quite figured out before. Others have reported struggling right along with my characters, searching your own hearts and minds and asking “What would I do in this situation?”

I love all these responses. I sometimes choose troublesome, difficult plots that I have to struggle through, as well. What would I do in that situation? What would someone I love do? And the clincher: “Why the heck am I writing this book? Whatever made me think I could manage this story?”

The Swallow’s Nest was one of those novels. I’m gratified that most of my reviews indicate you were immersed in my characters’ struggles as you read, and you worried about where and how the story would end. You weren’t sure of the characters, but I’m gratified that after you finished some of you thought The Swallow’s Nest was my best novel to date.

But not all of you.

The Not-So-Joyful:

I read my reviews, unlike some of my colleagues. I usually feel that I can learn something. The common thread in the few negative reviews The Swallow’s Nest has received is this: The characters were unsympathetic. And why should that reader care about characters they despised?

(An interesting note is that those readers who believed this, also believed that Lilia, a major character, was too sympathetic. Thus is a novelist’s life.)

So stay with me as I tell you that I liked/sympathized with everyone in the story. Everyone. Call me crazy, but by the time the novel was finished, I bled for every single person in it. Well, with the exception of Douglas. There was nothing to like there, although maybe there was, and there just wasn’t time to discover it? (We’ll never know.)

My Love Affair With My Characters and a Mini-lecture on Postpartum Depression:

When I began the book I asked my daughter, closer to Lilia’s age than mine, what she would do in Lilia’s situation. She told me to go watch Disney’s Maleficent. “It’s all about the child, Mom,” she said, thereby assuring me that I’d raised an exceptional young woman. She certainly puts her own children first. She couldn’t even imagine anyone sacrificing an innocent child on the altar of pride and anger. Her words–and the movie–helped me shape Lilia’s character. No matter what else she was feeling, Lilia could not take out her feelings on Graham’s son.

Then there was Marina. Nobody had to help me figure out Marina. Have you ever had a colicky baby? I have. Have you ever lost so much sleep that you stumbled through months barely functioning? I have. Have you tried to meet every need of a baby you didn’t want in the first place, one you were raising with no help? Nope, I haven’t. Not even vaguely. But I could certainly understand so much of what Marina was feeling. I could also understand how she let herself get talked into the pregnancy, how she was too tired and too ashamed to understand that some amount of postpartum depression was at work, and with help she might start feeling better.

But wait. How can this be true? Don’t doctors always recognize PPD and offer appropriate help? Not according to Katherine L. Wiser of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. As quoted in Psychology Today Dr. Wiser says:  “In the US, the vast majority of postpartum women with depression are not identified or treated even though they are at higher risk for psychiatric disorders.” And later she adds: “This is a huge public health problem for both mothers and their babies.”

I remember a discussion in an infant development class in graduation. Which comes first, the colicky baby or the depressed mother? We had no answer.

I modeled some of Marina’s childhood after one I saw up close, a friend who was far too often in charge of younger brothers. However, for the record? I took greater liberties with Deedee, Marina’s mother. Call me crazy, but I loved Deedee. Yes, she was irresponsible and clueless, which should mean she’s unsympathetic. But Deedee truly loved her children and later her grandchildren. In her own inept way she did anything she could for them. She drank too much, and she made bad decisions. But don’t we all have a Deedee in our life?  Someone we just have to love for the goodness blooming inside them?

And finally: Ellen, the hardest to love of all the women in this story. As a young woman Ellen had no idea how to be a mother, or how to stand up for herself with the people she hired to help, or with her husband. But later? Much later? When she regretted those earlier decisions and wanted a re-do? When she truly believed that she was the best person to raise her grandson?  Sure, we don’t love Ellen’s manipulations, her sense of entitlement, but me? As unsympathetic as she seemed, I had to love her anyway. Because I understood her struggles, her deep feelings of defeat as a mother, the one shining hope that she could prove herself to be a loving, caring grandmother, even if she’d failed her own son.

That said, I don’t think I’ll accept any invitations to lunch from Ellen.

So What Must I Do?

Of course for novelists, how well we explain and showcase a character’s background and feelings makes all the difference on how our readers will react to their mistakes and faults. Now, as I begin yet another difficult book with characters whose innate complexity is the major feature of the story, I am struggling again. How flawed can a character be? How important is it to make the reader fall in love with them or at last, empathize? How deep must I dig into a character’s psyche, and how much of what I discover must I show?

Your Homework:

What makes a character unsympathetic for you? Or even more important, what makes a character readable? Is there a difference? Or how about this. Can a character be too sympathetic or likable? What does that mean?

As I struggle with the next novel, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. Judy Varner on July 5, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Reading book now and loving it! I have enjoyed every one of your novels…keep them coming!

  2. Kathy Dean on July 5, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    I am drawn to characters that have struggles and rise above them. I don’t like characters that are too sweet or too much of a villain. I thought you showed Lila’s struggle, but her love of children helped her through her difficult situation. I also thought there was a sympathetic side to Marina, Deedee, and Ellen which makes them real, believable characters. The central issue of the love of a child touches the reader’s heart to see each character’s point of view.

  3. Florence on July 8, 2017 at 11:38 am

    I thought Lilia was a little too willing to go back to Graham. It was also very nice that she had a Carrick in her life. That said I did enjoy reading the book, reading helps me get away in my head for awhile!

  4. Lynn Ross on July 14, 2017 at 4:51 pm

    I haven’t had a chance to get your latest book, which is unheard of for me. I can’t wait to read it, and I think having read this article will help me go even deeper into the characters. Thank you, as always, for enriching my life with your wonderful gift for writing.

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