Nathan Bransford just put a post up a few days ago on sympathetic characters, and it got me to thinking. It is ultra-important to have a character people can relate to, care for, and root for. When I first wrote Crushed, I was told by more than one agent that the protagonist was not sympathetic, so I had to pick apart the character to figure out why. Personally, I liked Kristen from the beginning. She can come off as a bit of a b*tch, but she's also strong, competitive, and you never know what she's going to do next. How could I make other people see her the way that I did?
I went back to the proverbial drawing board and dismantled popular characters from other books and from movies to see what made them so sympathetic. Here is what I came up with:
1. The Underdog: People love to see a character rise from defeat to beat the stronger opponent. Think about Rocky, David and Goliath, etc. It doesn't matter if the protagonist is against a bigger person or a huge company, but it's important to have them outmatched in every way.
2. Character in Jeopardy: Unless the person is truly horrible, we don't generally want to see them get hurt. Putting the protagonist in danger from the beginning makes the story interesting and can give your character the sympathetic factor they need.
3. Hardship: A protagonist with problems like ours helps us to relate to them. For instance, maybe they are about to lose their house to foreclosure, or they just lost their job. The trick here is to keep the character strong, persevering throughout. If they whine, you will annoy the reader and make them want to see your character drown. Think about Scarlett O'hara. When she lost everything, she shook her fist at the sky and vowed she'd never go hungry again. Even though she was a bit of a b*tch, we loved her determination and spunk. Scarlett didn't whine when she didn't have a dress to wear. She ripped the drapes off the window and made a dress. You go, girl!
4. The Protective Factor: What if someone they care about is in danger? A spouse? A child? We all know what it's like to worry for someone you love. This helps make for a good, sympathetic character.
5. The Vulnerable Character: There are some characters that you know can be easily hurt or squashed even. We worry for them because they are too young to understand what they're getting into or too sweet and naive for their own good. When I think about this category, I picture a child or a pregnant woman. You automatically worry for them.
In the end, I decided to soften Kristen when it came to her sisters. She would do anything for them. When something bad happens to Cyndi at the beginning of the story, Kristen goes into protective mode. I've had several people read Crushed and they agree that she is a better character. Hopefully the public at large will also agree. Happy writing!