Use Character Traits to Make Your Character Sympathetic
Yesterday, we looked at 9 character traits that can be used to develop sympathy for your character. Today, we’ll look at using those traits in your story. It’s not enough just to tell yourself, or write on a checklist, that your character has these traits and is, therefore, instantly sympathetic. You must USE these traits. How?
Literary agent Donald Maass is a master of telling us how to use traits to create break out novels. He pushes you to go farther and deeper at ever turn.
Using the Character Traits
- Flaws. For character flaws – a necessary part of a sympathetic character, since perfect characters are not sympathetic – try making the character aware of his/her problem. When the character berates him/herself for being so grouchy in the morning, we have sympathy. When I announced to my 5:45 a.m. spinning class that I was a Grouch, that I had gotten up on the wrong side of bed, they all laughed and were extra kind to me that day. (The instructor still made me work hard, but at least I didn’t have to talk to anyone and pretend to be nice.)
- Hero or Heroine. Take any of the character traits we talked about before and push or shove it until it becomes heroic. Be careful not to become comic or melodramatic; but push the limits of what you can do with one trait.
- Multiply. Remember we said that victims get a certain amount of sympathy and pity. What if your character is a victim of multiple things? Pile it on and we’ll sympathize even more. Not only is your character in a wheelchair from a car wreck, but the bank is about to foreclose on her business; and she’s about to discover the cure for the common cold. That piles it on AND gives it a wider, public scope. Be careful here or we’ll get that contempt for this poor victim who can’t rise above her circumstances. But multiplying conflict is one way to increase sympathy for a character.
- Inner conflict. Give your character conflicting Dreeds and Plopes (dreams, needs, hopes, plans) and you increase sympathy. How can your character possibly choose between justice and the ineptness of the justice system?
- Paradox: While characters should be consistent, if you can add a believable paradox, you quicken our interest. The key is making it believable. What is it that your character would never say, do or think? Have them say, do or think it! But make sure you make the motivations and emotions clear.
- -Er or -Est a Trait. Push the trait to an extreme: Bigger, smallest, most vulgar, funnier, more clever, clumsiest. Make sure the reader notices your character!
- Raise the Stakes. Take their Dreeds and Plopes and make them matter more, put more at stake. The outcome of the hero/ine’s sacrifice will affect their family, their profession, the world. Why do you think evil men are always trying to “take over the world”? So they have the widest possible stakes. Take a cue from that cliche, though: make the increased stakes believable.
- Inner Change is Apparent. Finally, what character quality, trait, attitude, dream, need changes for your character. Yes, many things should change for a character. But your story should show a reader that people can change this one quality. What is it? Can you map a narrative arc for that one quality? From disbelief to faith; from a loner to accepting help; from defiant to accepting; from dependent to independent. Map it out. Raise some stakes and add some -er and -est.
Wow, I have some work to do on my VNovel! Because I want you to love G, even when he fails.