4 Ways To Get Your Reader To Identify With An Unsympathetic Character

How do we do this?

  1. Show a single moment of contrast. If your character is a self-absorbed callous jerk, show that one moment where he helps another person who is suffering. The tyrant who shows a flash of his vulnerability. The narcissist who makes fun of their own vanities. Don’t show this moment too often—or you will dilute the character and confuse the reader. We like characters that surprise us in an expected way. Examples: Whit Whittaker in Flight, Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada.
  2. Shine a light into our own dark side. If your character commits an immoral or illegal deed, show us how we could all be pushed to our limits. We don’t have to forgive it, but to find ourselves in the situation. The man who leaves his friend behind in the desert in order to survive himself. The woman who snaps and shoots her husband’s lover in a jealous rage. We are fascinated by these characters because they give us insight into the human condition. Examples: Anna Karenina from Tolstoy, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction.
  3. Swing it around with redemption. If you character seems hopeless or without any agreeable traits towards others, have him save the day and the lives of others. The coward who throws himself on a bomb during battle. The liar who exposes the truth at great personal cost. We love a story that turns around and reaffirms our faith in our fellow man. Examples: Max in Elysium, Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series.
  4. Show us why they’re the victim too. If you can show the bad guy’s vulnerability or his unbelievable back story, you can get sympathy from the reader. The person who was at the wrong place at the wrong time—and has never stopped paying the price. The mother replaying a circle of abuse in her own family. The greedy CEO who grew up on the streets. We like stories about people who are victim of their own natures or circumstance. Examples: Silva in Skyfall, the Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon.

When you’re creating a darker character, you must try to hint at the reason for their darkness, but it’s never a good idea to over explain it. If you can build a feeling of empathy for even your worst character, you will get a stronger emotional reaction for the reader or audience.

We must be able to imagine that if we were faced with a cross roads and went down the wrong path, we might have ended up just like this character. Even better, what if we didn’t have a choice? These are the leading questions to ask a writer and story teller.

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If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. The Inconsolable Writer – From Distraction to Inspiration in Four Easy Steps
  2. The Locked Room – A simple way to test your plot
  3. Stamp out that cliché – How clichés and jargon can ruin your writing

This article has 2 comments

  1. cas

    Thanks for this post Anthony. Damon from the Vampire Diaries is another example. He is a ruthless killer, he does bad things, he’s not a good non-living person. Then, just when you think he is irredeemable, he does something selfless, says something nice, or saves someone. It is keeping that spark of hope for the character alive that makes them interesting, makes you want to root for them. Like Loki in the Marvel films, his tragic back story and past injustices don’t make up for his badness, but they give you empathy for his character.

  2. Barb

    I think it’s interesting to see character development on the soaps. They will take a character that has done awful things, a character you think is beyond redemption and slowly turn it around with one good deed or thought at a time until they have the viewers forgetting about all the awful things the character has done. I’ve seen it time and time again and it never fails to amaze me.

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