So, you’re writing a path through the land of short story and you hit upon a problem. How do you make this character impart a feeling of sympathy to the readers who will be heading down the path you’ve started to bushwhack through the jungle (and jumble) of words piled on your paper or computer screen. This is what is called making a sympathetic character.
There are plenty of ways to make a character sympathetic. First, you can give the character an extensive backstory, so that the reader feels like they knows the character and cares about what happens. The problem with this is, when’s the last time you felt you knew someone just because you knew random details about their life? Letting the reader in on every bit of a character’s life can result in an infodump that feels like someone ate a blog and threw up on the page. Readers learn that the character was a dentist, that they loved Sprite but not 7-Up, they have an estranged spouse with kleptomaniac tendencies towards cigarette lighters and all about their secret wish to own a horse mane salon. And they learn all this in a 1,000 word flash fiction piece.
Now the reader doesn’t know the character as much as they have a laundry list of details about them. They in turn get annoyed with the character the same way they’d get annoyed with an irritating relative that tells them all about their gallbladder operation, or the intricate details of porcelain clowns they’ve collected over the years. Then the reader starts counting down until the character and their droning details finally kicks the bucket.
If that doesn’t work out, you can try to make sure the reader knows that the character is one that deserves their sympathy. This is done by making them a saint. If they have so much as a parking ticket, then readers will never feel sad that they were burned to death in a fire or decapitated. And if you don’t give information about their past misdeeds, the reader will forgo having sympathy in case they were a bad person. The problem with this is, when was the last time you drove by multicar accident or read about a plane crash and thought “I can’t feel sorry for that mother who just found out she has cancer because she was rude to a cashier three years ago” or “Gee, I shouldn’t be sad on the off chance that the victims might be secret serial killers.”
If you go the saint route, you get the self-proclaimed sainted person who always talks about their good deeds and gives out advice like lollypops, whether the advice actually fits or even makes sense. This isn’t the kind, quiet person who earns your respect, since to make sure the reader knows your character is faultless, you end up making them anything but kind and quiet. With the halo on their head and spotless soul wrapped around their shoulders, you’ve created a walking cliché, looking more like a reject from a badly written picture book than an actual human being. Readers will most likely mentally replace your character with annoying neighbor who only ever talks about how many dimes they’ve dropped in plastic bin at the end of a checkout counter rather than the kind teacher who comforted them after their childhood dog died.
If you really want your doomed characters to be sympathetic, treat them like any other character. Let the reader get to know them the way they get to know any other character. Give them a backstory and incorporate the amount that fits the length and style of your story. Give them the same personalities and flaws you’d give your other characters. If you want a kindhearted character craft them to be like the kindhearted people you’d see in real life.
And above all, use language that elicits sympathy. Language is a song, with each word a single note carrying the emotion and image you want to convey, working alone and together to create a chorus and symphony that can say anything you want, with just a few turns of phrase.
“They left him there, on his hands and knees trying to throw up, their deep laughter echoing long after they left room, sealing him once again in darkness. Nothing came out of his mouth, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t come out sooner or later. Travis wrapped his arms around himself and tried to rock the fear away.”
For more information about Rebekah Webb and her writing, visit her website.