Sympathetic vs Engaging Characters

Are sympathetic characters the same or different to engaging characters? This was a topic on an old Writing Excuses podcast (episode 9.10). The answer is they are different. Here is what resonated with me from the episode in terms of how can I think about my characters to make them more engaging.

To help characters be engaging, make them do things differently than what most people would do. Making them unexpected is a bonus, but it should be logical, following principles that the character believes in. That is, it is not completely random. If they have quirks, how does it make them react (logically) in different ways to what we would do?

For example, in the episode they talked about a character from a Star Wars book. He had an arts background, but now was an evil mastermind. A part of his evaluation of the worth of a planet was based on the art from that planet. It influenced his decisions in his dealings with the planet (e.g., whether he would invade). This is unexpected to most. You don’t think of military commanders being art lovers to the extent it influenced their military decisions. This helps make the character more interesting.

A topic that also came up is what is a character quirk versus a trait. A useful tool can be to consider quirks as a character trait that impacts the storyline. If someone rubs their chin when confused, that is a trait. If they rush into a decision without thinking when confused, that is a quirk as they may make bad decisions impacting the plot. Quirks are more interesting. That is, character behaviors become more interesting when it impacts the story. It makes the characters more engaging.

One technique to see if your characters are engaging to the audience is to think through the following:

  • What is the level of audience sympathy for the character? Are they nice? Pleasant? (I don’t recall it being mentioned in the podcast, but I would also add what weaknesses do they have here.)
  • What is the competence of the character? Are they unusually skilled at something?
  • How proactive is the character in doing things? Do they initiative action, or do they just react?

Characters with more of these traits tend to be more engaging. You don’t have to max all three (in fact it can be bad), but the more they have of more than one trait, the more engaging they generally are.

It can be interesting to think through example characters and see how they fit into the above.

  • Superheroes (like Superman) can be problematic. They can be boring as they always win, they will always respond to save the day, nothing unexpected happens. It can be hard to empathize with a superhero (we don’t share the same weaknesses), they are often reactive rather than proactive (they chase the proactive villain), so they can just fall into the competent bucket. Without kryptonite, would Superman be as interesting a character?
  • Batman is different. He is just a human who lost his parents (sympathy), but is super rich and pretty strong (competent), and is sometimes a vigilante (proactive). It can be easier to make him engaging.
  • The Joker we may not sympathize with, but he is often proactive and is good at what he does. His plans may fail, but he lives to try again another day. Villains in general can be easier to make interesting as they are generally competent and proactive off the bat. If they were not competent, they would get caught on their first bank robbery!

In my own series, I have a main character (Sam) who is nice, honest, always trying to do the right thing. He also has a past he is trying to hide from others, which can make him more reactive than proactive. It can be a challenge to make him interesting as he generally tries to avoid raising attention about himself and avoids conflicts (more of a peacemaker). So I am thinking through some surprising skills to give him that impact the storyline.

Hank on the other hand is grumpy, opinionated, sometimes rash. He generally scores well on all three of the above points, but has a weakness that he can be proud and go too far. It makes it easier for him to be more interesting than Sam when writing scripts. It is not wrong for Hank to be interesting, but I don’t want Sam left in the shadows of the other characters.

So I have found this a useful framework to think about how to see if characters are likely to be engaging, and then what to change about them to increase the engagement level.

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