Make them Sympathetic

You’ll hear this all the time, but what does it mean? It means they win sympathy from the audience. Well, what kinds of people win our sympathy? Actually, the rest of the article is kind of a list of the kinds of people we feel sympathy for, so let’s just push on into that.

Give them a Good Objective

We like people, and therefore feel sympathy for them when they suffer, if they have an objective we approve of. For instance, someone who is trying to be a good mother, or is trying to make a difference in their community, or is trying to save the world. Generally a contemporary hero can be defined as someone who puts others’ needs before their own, right? So consider giving them an objective that puts someone else’s needs first. Sound like your favourite protagonist from your favourite story? I know, right? 

Make them Flawed

If someone is too good we just won’t buy it. People are flawed. Like you and me. But, we’re doing our best with the circumstances we’ve been given, right? We all pretty much think of ourselves in the same way, and we’re all the hero in our own stories. The moment we stop being the hero in our own story, we’ll start to take measures to reassert that heroic status. Enjoy thinking about all that. But the point of this is to acknowledge that the best characters are flawed. Think of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Even the son of God wasn’t totally sure about getting up on that cross. 

Make them Relatable

Who do we relate to? It’s a bit of a tricky question actually … it’s tempting to say we relate to people like us. But is that right? Why is everyone obsessed with the British Royal family? Why when they have a family spat do we love to hear about it? Is it because of the surprising relatability of family drama? Is this why Hamlet is about a royal family? Why many ancient tragedies and Shakespearean ones too are about royal families? Are those really just about family dynamics, dressed up and made a little snazzier by making them royals? Perhaps this raises the ‘significance’ of the story, and makes it feel more worthy and worthwhile. I think the answer here is actually to try to make the nature of the problems the protagonist is dealing with relatable for the audience i.e. if the protagonist’s main probably is whether to buy an Omega or Rolex watch, we’re not going to relate to that (except for you, yes you). But if Hamlet, say, is a Prince, and his main problem is that he misses his Dad, well that’s something we can relate to, and perhaps we’re obsessed with the Royals because what we’re learning is just how similar the lives of the rich, powerful, and famous our to ours in many respects. 

Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.