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Is Your Protagonist a Sympathetic Character?


We’re onto Writing Rule #15 today, and it goes like this:

No matter what you do with your protagonist’s personality, storyline or motivations, make sure they’re relatable.

Your main character is going to be the primary focus of your story, so you need him or her to connect with your audience.

Pick an issue she struggles with that makes readers sympathize, or a fight he tackles that they can get behind.

In the case of the hit TV show Breaking Bad, which I mentioned on Tuesday, antiheroic protagonist Walter White chooses a life of crime after he’s been diagnosed with cancer. It’s inoperable, so he knows he’s going to die. And worse yet, he also knows he doesn’t have nearly enough money saved up to support his wife and their son, who has cerebral palsy.

That set of circumstances makes him a sympathetic character. Viewers might not be able to empathize with his exact condition, but they can still definitely feel bad for him. Walter is in a miserably tough spot, after all.

That miserably tough spot means that readers are going to be much more likely to excuse his actions and even root for him when he chooses to put his chemistry education degree to a much different use than it was ever intended. He’s a good guy who chooses to do some horrible things and turn into a bad guy for good reasons.

Talk about complicated!

Consider this hypothetical twist though: What if Walter White was a filthy rich guy who always got everything he wanted up until he got cancer? We’re talking about the same basic premise with the same personality, just a different set of circumstances.

All of a sudden, it’s not nearly so compelling from a character perspective standpoint. Very few people would find themselves cheering Walter on in his illicit activities; and I think it’s safe to say that Breaking Bad never would have become the smash hit it was.

As I wrote earlier this week, I never watched it. It never appealed to me personally. But an audience of 10.28 million watched the finale, so clearly the show did something right when it came to connecting with its audience.

Naturally, you don’t have to put your protagonist in such a drastic situation for readers or viewers to like him on some level. He could very well be a rich guy with a perfectly healthy family who gets cancer. Just as long as he doesn’t then go out and become a criminal mastermind, you still have a good chance of making him sympathetic.

He could also just as easily be an ordinary, likable character who finds himself caught up in a complicated situation. Or she could be a super-smart brain surgeon with a witty sense of humor – the type of personality most readers will be drawn to no matter how different they are in academic standing and success levels.

Put simply, you want to give your readers some kind of reason to bond with your protagonist: a connection that has them emotionally invested in what happens to him or her in your story.

I’ll leave you with one last note about sympathetic characters.

In order to make your protagonist as likable as possible, you, the writer, have to first be personally invested in his or her details. You need to understand them: what makes them tick, what they find frightening, what they’re running from or to, who they care about.

The more you feel connected to your main characters, the more you’ll make them come alive.

Believe me: Your readers will appreciate your efforts. And you’ll be a lot more proud of your finished product.

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