By Christopher Schuck
Before beginning, I would like to thank my readers and subscribers for bearing with my this weekend as I rediscovered my blog’s look. Construction is complete and I hope you like what you see. Thank you.
“An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” –Gene Knudsen Hoffman.
I thought about the concept of sympathetic characters this weekend. My conclusion was the essentialness of POV and back-story in creating sympathy.
POV = point of view (writing from a given character’s perspective)
Back-story = what already happened to a character and how it shaped them (essentially, a snippet of past tense POV)
Before getting to that, I would like to quickly cover the premise commonly given on the topic:
- Create Sympathy: The advice I often hear for writers is that creating sympathy for characters is critical – for heros and villains alike.
- Why: If a reader has sympathy for a character, they will:
1) care what happens to the character, provoking them to read more to find out what happens
2) see the characters as real people, allowing them to believe the story
- How: Sympathy is created by characters having relatable characteristics and challenges – making them real (character building) and showing who they are.* The goal is to have a reader say about a character “I like them” or “I understand them.”
I really enjoyed the advice, given on Gail Martin’s blog, Sympathetic Characters and don’t want to repeat such a well-written synopsis, but to expand upon it.
So, this weekend, I concluded that POV and back-story are the framework for creating sympathy, upon which specific ideas and examples hang.
There is, after all, no better way to show accurately who a character is or what happened to them than showing it through their eyes or past experiences (using a different POV, if done properly, necessitates bias).
Interestingly (and don’t judge me for this) the idea solidified when I heard a song on the radio – an Avril Lavigne song, Skater Boy. Yes, maybe I should have changed the station right away, but it is a song with a story, and I always like to hear a story out. The song began telling about a boy whom a girl secretly had liked but had rejected because he “wasn’t good enough.” It continued:
“Five years from now, she sits at home, feeding the baby, she’s all alone.
She turns on tv, guess who she sees, skater boy rockin’ up MTV.
She calls up her friends, they already know, and they’ve all got tickets to see his show.
She tags along and stands in the crowd, looks up at the man that she turned down.”
Those lyrics marked a POV change and a critical (though, I think unintended) POV shift – I started feeling sympathy for the girl. She became real; she made a mistake and regretted it. Because of this, when the song ended, still mocking this girl for her bad decision, I felt a little sorry for her and, to any story’s detriment, a lack of resolution.
I have been playing with this concept for a while, though, asking myself:
- What about a character makes them likable and/or the one we root for?
- When reading a book or watching a movie, what makes the dramatically different array of central characters the ones we care about?
- What if the story was told from the antagonist’s POV?
I know the answer to the last one because I always side with the gangster (e.g. The Godfather) or robber (e.g. Ocean’s Eleven) if they have the POV, despite my assumed preference for good guys.
Another powerful illustration is Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. [spoiler alert] Even before his good side is revealed, we are eased into liking him through little snippets of his back-story.
Gene Hoffman was speaking philosophically when she said, “An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” However, a good story will always echo the same philosophies that ring to true in real life. Flipping Gene’s quote to get at her implications – we care more about someone once we have heard their story.
With that in mind, I would like to add to the previous statement on how to create sympathy* – making them real (character building) and showing who they are (give POV and/or back-story).
Next, I will cover a three-part series on character building: Building Basic Character Outlines, Two Easy Tools for Characterization. and Seven Methods to Convey Character.
Please feel free to comment below.
1) Ever like an unlikely character? What about them did you like?
2) Do you have any examples for or arguments against POV as a sympathy structure?
Thanks for reading!