Demystify Series: Creating Sympathetic Characters (NANOWRIMO)

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One of the most important ways to grab your reader is through a SYMPATHETIC CHARACTER

Here’s how to create one in 5 easy steps:

1. Who (Character Traits): Give your character a strong GIFT that makes them larger-than-life and a strong FLAW that humanizes them and makes them relatable.

Example: In Jane Eyre, Jane is passionate which makes us admire her but also gets her in trouble. This makes us like her even more because it makes her active and creates story. A reader will forgive a lot in a character if we understand why they are flawed (usually due to some childhood trauma). But a reader will not easily forgive a character (or writer) who is boring!

2. What (Story): Give your character a strong WANT and a strong ANTAGONIST to stand in the way of that want. Create escalating tiers of wants and antagonists.

Example: Jane wants to leave her abusive aunt and cousins, then she has to endure the hardships of the boarding school and finally she wants Mr. Rochester who is   still married to Bertha.

3. When/Where (Setting): Give your character settings that provide CONFLICT.

Example: Jane suffers at her aunt’s home, Gateshead, then at the boarding school, Lowood, then at Thornfield, especially when she finds out the truth about the woman in the attic, and finally on the moors. Notice the foreshadowing created by the words “gate,” “low,” “wood” and “thorn.”

4. How (Style): SHOW your reader what it's like to be in the main character’s body using SENSORY LANGUAGE and avoiding clichés. TELL your reader what your character is thinking without overdoing exposition. Avoid stilted, forced or derivative language. The voice that flows most naturally from you, filtered through the lens of a character whose wants, needs, gifts and flaws you know well, is usually best.

(Tip: Contractions make a character more relatable. If you don’t use them you run the risk of alienating your reader with the character’s formality. This may be different in a period piece.)

Example: Jane tells her story in a close, personal way, as if she were sitting beside us in front of a roaring fire drinking tea. “Reader, I married him,” says it all!

5. Why: (Theme): Readers admire characters who CHANGE because this is a challenge we all face and because it provides story. Give your character a strong ARC. The character’s trajectory from the beginning of the arc to its resolution is usually an expression of the theme.

Example: Jane becomes more compassionate, patient and forgiving, while also standing up for herself in a mature way. By witnessing her arc, we as readers may be able to connect to these qualities in ourselves as well.

Voila, you have a sympathetic character!