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Thread: How to deal with trying too hard to make a character sympathetic?

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Sep 2007
    The Yangverse

    Default How to deal with trying too hard to make a character sympathetic?

    So... I realized I might have a bit of a problem with a character I created even though I've only written a few stories about them (I'd rather not say which, but through this and reading my stories you might be able to guess) and I was hoping to possibly help others with this subject discussing it?

    So basically this one character of mine supposedly has it bad. Really bad. Like "alone and ostracized by everyone they used to care about them" bad. And at first I thought I was handling it well, but some circumstances, including comparing them to some other people's much better-written characters who suffered way worse fates, made me realize I was likely.. trying too hard to make them feel pitiable? Like, going overboard in desceribing the magnitude of their suffering and going so far as making them look overly pitiful in a Littlest Cancer Patient fashion even in drawings of them?

    I feel it may already be too late for this character, but for my future avoidance and other people's how do you avoid falling into that trap of overdramatizing and pity-partying a character's unfortunate situation?

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  2. #2
    Join Date
    Mar 2016


    Just make it realistic? Not everyone would feel sympathetic for a character in real life. Whether that may be a prejudice, jealousy, or just being plain cold. Also, have the character have some good things happen to them, even small ones are good.
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  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2004


    Some general tips for authors in this situation:

    - Make sure other characters' actions make sense. If everybody just acts totally unreasonably horrible towards a character for flimsy reasons, it feels unconvincing and exaggerated. If people are hostile towards your character, there should be some sort of a reason for it that makes sense from their point of view, even if it's petty or based on incorrect assumptions, and they should act in accordance with that, not just flatly horrible - if they're afraid of the character, or feel threatened by their ability at something, or have been brought up to believe people like this character are subhuman, it should generally affect exactly how they act towards them.

    - Show, don't tell. I don't just mean that you shouldn't go "Character X is sad and lonely because they've been ostracized by everyone they cared about" in the narration; I mean that more subtlely is generally better for things like this, because readers often resist when they feel like they're being beaten over the head with how hard the character has it. Technically you could show someone's loneliness by making them sit down at a high school lunch table and watch everyone edge farther away from them, or sigh longingly as they watch friends laughing together, but that's pretty blunt; it may work better to just do something like show their daily routine and let the reader be the one to notice the conspicuous lack of other people in it, or show them acting tense and guarded towards people who to the reader are obviously just trying to be friendly, hinting that they're unused to it. That being said, don't worry endlessly about whether you're being subtle enough; sometimes a fairly blunt demonstration of a character being pitiable just works, or is the natural way for a scene to proceed. Just don't force those kinds of scenes to tell the reader how bad things are for the character; they can figure it out from far less.

    - Don't try to tell the reader how much the character ought to be pitied. This includes making them excessively self-pitying and having another character deliver a lecture about it - if readers find the character pitiful, they can figure that out for themselves. You rarely need to spell out how unfair everything that's happened to the character is. Of course, it's only natural it would sometimes come up - if the character truly deserves pity, it's only natural for some other characters to pity them, and while some people will accept an unjust situation as normal or blame themselves for it, others are legitimately angry about it - but again, don't force it; let it happen when it flows naturally from the scene, but avoid writing scenes just to tell us about how much this character deserves our pity.

    - Don't dwell unnecessarily on their pain. You're telling a story, not just trying to throw a pity party for this character, and scenes should serve the story you're telling. Sometimes it serves the story you're telling to get across just how much this character is suffering, but not always, and once you've already made the point to the extent that it's relevant to the story, you should probably move on. This doesn't mean the character's personality and emotional state, including how they're affected by how they've suffered, shouldn't come across in the way they act in general, of course, just that you should avoid bringing the story to a halt to wallow in the character's misery without a very good reason.

    - Don't let being pitiable be all there is to the character. They should be more than just pitiful and long-suffering; they should have likes, dislikes, routines, hobbies, ways of coping, and we should see that side of the character too, not just how bad they have it. Again, many of these things might be colored by their painful experiences, but they're probably not solely defined by them.

    I don't think it can ever be "too late" for a character in this regard; even if you feel you've been trying too hard to make them pitiable so far, you can just try to tone it down for future works involving them. Since this is mostly a matter of execution rather than the fundamentals of the character and their situation, you can fix it just by changing how you write about the character and what you focus on, rather than having to change the actual character. So don't feel like your character is doomed just because you feel like you may have been going overboard with them so far! It's just a matter of fine-tuning their portrayal for the future.

    If you want to talk more specifically about your particular character (I have a pretty good idea who you mean), feel free to PM me about what you've been thinking. For the record, I'm inclined to think you're being a bit too hard on yourself and this character here.
    Last edited by Dragonfree; 4th June 2016 at 5:46 PM.

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