We want our readers to care about our characters when writing a novel, even the evil ones, but sometimes those characters just end up feeling two-dimensional. I’ve covered what to do when characters are feeling flat, but what if you want to make a character more sympathetic too?
This need will often arise when you have a villain you want to make more complicated or if you have a love interest you want to make more appealing. Sometimes you just need to tug at the reader’s heartstrings.
How do you go about making a character more sympathetic? Here are some tips:
Show them caring about something
Give them a dog, a kid sister, a beloved cricket, anything.
Show the reader that the character isn’t a heartless, unfeeling monster. When we see characters caring about something, we adjust our perception of them to include the possibility that there are things they really do care about.
They may not like your protagonist, but they do care about something.
Make them vulnerable
If a character appears invincible it’s hard to identify with them as a living and breathing human being. It’s too easy to see them as more machine than human.
Instead: show them in a vulnerable moment. This will make the reader’s empathy kick in, which will inspire a moment of sympathy for even the most evil character.
Give them quirks
Another way to inspire sympathy for a character is to show them as a quirky, flawed human being.
Those individualized gestures and habits are what make characters leap off the page. It’s what makes them feel like a living and breathing character.
The more you humanize a character, the more the reader will feel a sense of connection to them.
Justify their motivations
If the reader doesn’t understand why a character is doing evil things, it’s too easy for them to conclude they’re just evil.
Especially when you’re trying to create a great villain, it’s so important to show what motivates them and to give them complicated justifications for their actions.
They might still be misguided and villainous, but if the reader can understand why they’re doing what they’re doing they’ll inspire more sympathy.
Show their wounds
Even villains are products of their environments. While a traumatic past won’t ever fully justify a villain’s actions, it will at least contextualize their history and inspire some sympathy for how and why they ended up like they did.
Show a character’s wounds and you’ll trigger the reader’s empathy.
Do you have any tips for inspiring a sense of sympathy for a character? Take to the comments!
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Art: Martha and Mary Magdalene by Caravaggio
Enjoyed these comments, Nathan, especially how to make villains more sympathetic by increasing understanding.