Characters need to be sympathetic. Ironically, I’ve been going around with one of my editors about how to make my teen readers see a particular character as sympathetic.
And I don’t mean “going around” as in disagreeing. She’s right. He needs to be or they simply won’t read the story. My editor and I have been talking over this particular point.
The irony comes around because of my recent reading.
Its ironic because I’ve recently read several books with abrasive or otherwise unsympathetic main characters. The books that I finally enjoyed, all set the main character back a few steps but in a way that wasn’t the main character’s fault. Yep, they were all launched out of their whiny self-centered comfort zones but it was always involuntary and never their own doing. In each case I came to like the various characters because I felt sorry for them.
In Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat, I felt for alcoholic Anna Pigeon when she finds the body of a fellow ranger. Who wants to find a stiff in the middle of a perfectly good work day?
In Wayne Thomas Batson’s The Door Within, Aidan Thomas must move across the country when his grandfather can no longer live alone. Not only does he come to appreciate the old man, I came to appreciate him as he fought to stay alive and help the country in which he found himself.
In Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary, I initially found Janie to be more than a bit shallow and vapid. But when she has to move to England and then helps a classmate hide and goes with him on an adventure to save the world, she won me over.
There was one unsympathetic character who didn’t win me over. I won’t pan the book but suffice it to say that he was so in love with himself that when he was murdered I couldn’t help but be relieved. Mean? Perhaps, but true.
Your characters don’t have to be perfect to be sympathetic but do make sure they don’t bring on all of their problems themselves. I can’t feel sorry for them if I’m thinking “Wow, he really deserved that.”