Do you read for pleasure? Of course, we writers are also students of books after we take on the study of the craft. I’m reading a book “for pleasure” right now that isn’t working for me. Why? Because I can’t relate with the heroine, which means I don’t sympathize with her. Why is it important to relate to and sympathize with a main character? Because character sympathy helps keep readers hooked and wanting to finish the story. It also provides an emotional connection that the writer can exploit to help bring about profound change in the reader. The best fiction is life-changing. And the way to impact lives is to elicit an emotional response. And the key to doing that is to write relatable, sympathetic characters.
So, what makes us relate to and sympathize with the characters in a story?
Universal themes. These are themes that stretch around the world. Things like a mother’s or father’s love. The love of family. The instinct to protect the helpless. Compassion for children. The desire to help those who are hurting. Hatred of violence and evil. The need for forgiveness and acceptance. The list is nearly endless, and granted, some of these themes are more universal than others. (Villains don’t hate evil, for example.) If your MC (main character) champions a cause that touches on a universal theme, readers are more likely to defend and support your main character.
Relatable emotions. Even if your MC champions a worthy cause, s/he may still not be “likable.” Character arc demands that the character start out with some rough edges that are hopefully smoothed out a bit by the end of the story. So, making your MC relatable at the beginning means giving her a weakness or heartache or wound that readers will relate to. Maybe she’s crabby because her grown children never call or visit. Maybe he believes the world is out to get him. Show us their inner workings,their secret heartaches. Help us see behind the gruff exterior. If you give us a relatable reason for their behavior, we’ll probably advocate for them, even if they’re irritable. (All while we await change.) The key is maintain balance. If your MC dislikes another person, give us a corresponding reason of equal weight. If she hates someone else, the reason must be weightier and may be harder to justify. Be proportionate. Remember: readers are logical and emotional. So we must balance those two too.
A Worthy Cause. I’ve hinted at this above under themes. Readers will forgive an MC’s rough relational methods if they believe in the MC’s cause. In other words, show us the MC’s nobility. Sure, she’s as snarky as piranha, but she fights for the rights of children. Readers will overlook the sharpness, even believing that trait might help the MC’s cause. Ironically, readers begin to admire those traits as the MC sees victory. Be careful though. Don’t let harsh, rude characters always win without ever changing. Readers won’t put up with rudeness forever. They also like that universal theme of redemption and change.
What are some other ways you can make readers sympathize with your MC? How do you make your hero or heroine likable, right from the start?