Making Characters Sympathetic

One of bedrocks of creating memorable characters is to make them sympathetic.  After all, not many readers want to spend time with characters they can’t stand.  The easiest ways to generate sympathetic characters is to show them in pain, show them doing something heroic, and/or show other characters admiring them.  In general, creating sympathetic characters isn’t something that requires conscious thought on the author’s part.  If the author wants to spend time with that character, writing their story, then generally readers will as well.

Occasionally though, we come across characters that require more effort to get the reader to sympathize–think Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  Those stories wouldn’t work from Sherlock’s point-of-view, he’s an egotist that loves to lord it over others.  So Sir Author Conan Doyle chose Watson as the everyman and more sympathetic character.
Recently, I ran into this problem with a main protagonist.  I wrote the first scene and thought eww, I hate being in this character’s head.  And like Sir Author Conan Doyle, I began thinking about different point-of-views to tell the story.  Ultimately, I decided that no, that character’s point-of-view was the right one.  But I still had this problem.
My solution was to start the story in a different place to show the character being sympathetic, in pain and being heroic.  There’s a reason the reboot of the Star Trek franchise first shows Kirk as a kid stealing a car.  As a kid, there’s an innocence there coupled with the pain of loss of his biological father.  We laugh because we know it’s a foreshadowing of his swagger and that he’s a kid (would we have laughed if he was an adult?  I doubt it).  The next time we see Kirk he’s in a bar and soon in an impossible fight, not backing down—again foreshadowing his heroic nature.  Finally, that sequence ends with Captain Pike admiring him, which firmly plants Kirk as a sympathetic character for the audience—even though he’s cocky and a womanizer.  If they started the story with him in the academy, the audience wouldn’t have likely reacted as favorably to him.
Making characters sympathetic is a key component to storytelling.  If, as a writer, you find your character unpleasant to spend time with a different point-of-view or starting the story in a different place may do the trick.
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