The Curse of the Sympathetic Character

Going online to have a mooch around the reviews of a book I’d just read, I was confronted with the stark judgement that ‘the characters in this novel were not worthy of depiction’. Now it was true that these characters were not heroic, or instantly sympathetic in that button-pressing write-by-numbers sort of way. They were people who struggled with their situations and never managed to resolve them, they were people who made mistakes and who were flawed, they were people who either couldn’t shake off unhealthy obsessions or ran away from conventional happiness – but what’s all this about being ‘worthy’? Since when have we decided that characters in novels need to be moral paragons? And yet I do see this more and more in reviews I read, the endless cry for characters to be wholly, engagingly and consistently sympathetic.

So what does it mean for a character to be sympathetic? In its most basic form, it means that the reader has to care about their fate in some way. It means that we are brought to a position of understanding their motives and actions by the author. The adorable Jenny always says that she needs to see that the character is loved or appreciated by someone else in the novel. And my dear friend Fugitive Pieces used to say that she much preferred novels where she could see that the author genuinely liked his or her own characters.

But I become increasingly concerned that what this plea for sympathetic characters actually means is a strong cultural pressure on people, in life as in fiction, to behave according to certain unwritten norms. For instance, I’ve just joined a new writing circle, and one of the authors is writing a book which features a battered wife. She is under a lot of pressure over this character, whom the other writers judge to be ‘too passive’, and ‘too pessimistic’. Opinions have been expressed that this character must at least show a determination to save herself, a strong desire to escape her situation, and full condemnation of her husband’s behaviour. Now of course, if this character were indeed feisty, determined and insightful, she most certainly would not have ended up a battered wife in the first place! Novels have a job to do of broadening our inner horizons and helping us to share experiences we might never otherwise have, and they give voice to people who have none. But can they do that, if we maintain a demand for characters to be ‘sympathetic’ according to cultural requirements that very few real people ever meet? Isn’t the fault at least in part one of intolerance of the reader, a lack of compassion borne from unreasonable cultural pressures that unjustly value extroversion, optimism and pro-activeness and unjustly deride introversion, gentleness and uncertainty?

I also feel dubious about this demand for sympathetic characters when it often seems to mean sympathetic female characters. Men are let off lightly, whilst it seems as ever to be the female protagonists who must bear the burden of society’s behavioural demands. I have to wonder whether this call for sympathetic characters is not in fact a flaw arising from a predominantly female publishing world, and certain genres heavily weighted towards a female audience, in which women are, as ever, brutally hard on their own sex. When I was discussing this issue with Mr Litlove on the weekend, he pointed out that we have to forgive ourselves before we can forgive others, and maybe this lack of compassion for characters arises from the ever-diminishing sympathy we seem to have for ordinary failings, everyday flaws.

People do good things and they do bad things; such is the nature of the human condition. Our greatest qualities can lead us into making our biggest mistakes, our unredeemable parts sometimes turn out to be essential. I think that the best characters manage to awaken a truly complicated sympathy in the reader, where we recognise how impossible it is to make judgements at all. And if readers are often chafing at the bit against characters who do not strike them as people they could care about, then maybe it’s partly because authors, striving too hard to awaken their sympathy, end up manufacturing it in artificial ways that fool no one, rather than allowing it to develop in a genuine way for ordinary, complex, flawed protagonists. Never before have readers had so  much influence over authors; we really must be careful what we wish for.

38 thoughts on “The Curse of the Sympathetic Character

  1. That curse you mention isn’t only on the part of stunted readers, Litlove. Editors in publishing houses repeatedly ask for characters they can warm to, feel sympathy for, and identify with. Are they reflecting the low standards of readers, responding to them, or shaping it? There’s no clear answer to that. What they are doing is enabling. If a reader wants everything lovey-dovey, he or she should pick up a Hallmark card.
    In the meantime, readers and editors need to let writers be mean, as well as show how people fail (as you point out, we all do), and succeed (where that is true to the art), and not prescribe that things have to be affirming. Art isn’t an escape chute from misery and sadness.

    • Jeff, it’s my feeling that editors are far more to blame than readers. Editors are choosing and manipulating what we get to read and much like all fashions, if it’s all that’s available to buy, then you get used to it. And it may be my European melancholy talking, but positivity doesn’t do anything for me unless it emerges authentically out of the created situation. And of course the same is true for sadness, too. I am wondering whether the call for ‘sympathy’ in characters is actually arising out of a sense of inauthenticity in novels, one that comes about through the desire to please editors and create situations that aren’t in fact realistic or plausible. My main issue here is that we are much better off without prescriptions for people, whether in art or reality!

  2. Very interesting observations and speculations. Of course I like it when I can identify with a character or feel sympathetic but it is definitely not a requirement, if it were I never would have made it through Lolita. And that poor person in your writing group. A character that is written with truthfulness is always preferable even if that character make me mad or uncomfortable or disappointed by their actions.

    • I completely agree – it’s the truthfulness of the situation that makes the impact, and I am always mightily impressed by authors who communicate a psychological reality that isn’t comfortable but strikes me with its authenticity. And Lolita is an excellent example. So many of the really great novels have difficult, complex protagonists, and are all the better for it.

  3. Aw, I don’t lack compassion for characters who aren’t proactive and extroverted! I do like flawed characters, whatever the flaws are, but it just makes a huge difference to me if somebody else in the book sees the character for who they are, flaws and all, and likes them anyway. Like Beth! In Little Women. Beth in Little Women is like the most passive character in the history of passive characters, but even though I am annoyed by how perfectly perfect she can be, I like her anyway because the other characters do. They recognize that she is cripplingly shy, but they like her and so I do too. Because I think it’s impossible not to make any judgment about a character! But when you see other characters able to say, Yes, you have these flaws, but you also have these good qualities, and I like you in spite of your flaws and love you as a full person.

    I haven’t said this very well! What I mean is that you like the people you like in real life because of some combination of the things that compose them; and when you run up against the things about them that you don’t like (the things that are “unsympathetic”), you deal with them as best you can because you recognize that the person is a combination of all their traits, not just the lovable ones. And what earns my sympathy in fictional characters is if someone else in the book reacts to them that way — i.e., the way real people react to real people they like. It makes me feel like okay, this person has flaws, but they are worth overlooking.

    • I really need to add somewhere in big letters that I find your point of view on this really intriguing and I like it – it’s unusual and means that you can appreciate all sorts of different characters. I don’t think that comes out clearly enough in the post itself!

  4. Having guiltily fled where no man pursueth because I do feel a smidge defensive about wanting my characters to be sympathetic, I now add: I love this post! I think you’re completely right that female characters are scrutinized much more closely than male ones are, because there’s often this sense that women who write “weak” female characters are Letting the Side Down.

  5. You make an interesting point here, Litlove. I think it helps if a reader is interested in the characters, but I don’t think that’s the same as the characters being ‘sympathetic’. I’ve heard many people say they dislike Madame Bovary or Chopin’s The Awakening because they think the female characters are selfish or spoilt. Some might say they are both, but it doesn’t stop the characters being interesting. If characters need to be likeable, then it’s going to make fiction very boring indeed.

    • I completely agree with you, and you manage in this comment to put your finger on exactly what I was trying to say! I am always so impressed by authors who manage to make me have sympathy for characters who are not instantly appealling. That’s a far more interesting situation in a novel, I think, than succumbing to saccharine niceness.

  6. I really agree with you and must say I have been puzzled by the same comments before, and quite often they were about some woman or other (in a novel) being to passive or too this or that. I find this absurd as that type of person does exist as well, and characters in novels shouldn’t only be role models, at least not for me. Maybe in some novels, yes but not in all.

  7. Very apropos topic for me right now, as I’m submitting a novel to publishers and some of the rejections that have come back from editors have been along the lines of “I don’t warm to the MC” who is female and who happens to be tough and gritty. I know that if she were a he, matters would be different. Luckily I have a lovely feminist German publisher who has encouraged me to make Maggie tougher!

    • Hurray for the German publisher! I really do think that it’s mostly editors to blame, who, in their desire not to offend the market in any way, take too limited a view of what sympathetic means. Surely for your purposes, Maggie HAS to be tough and gritty? I can’t imagine her without that side to her personality, and surely she has fine precedents too, in the female MCs of writers like Val McDermid and Sara Paretsky!

  8. A fascinating post. What it reminds me of is the 19th century view of literature as work meant to be uplifting. And then came the fin de siecle and the yellow book and the shock of writers portraying people who had affairs and women who had babies without marriage (The Woman Who Did, which I didn’t like, and Esther Waters, which I loved). It seems to me that this is a cycle that comes and goes, and the main thing that matters for writers is to keep their heads down and inner eye on their own vision and what sparks it. But then I’ll contradict myself and say that the conversation about books, intelligent conversation like yours, sparks that vision too.

    • I know exactly what you mean about the cycle that comes and goes with regard to women. It reminds me of the way that my generation were all fiercely feminist, but my students were all quite strongly against what they perceived as the hostility and bitterness of feminism (on the grounds that women were now equal; hmmmm). We seem to go back and forth over this ground but never quite get out of the mire of prescription, in which someone somewhere wants to dictate the behaviour of women and their fate if they do not comply. I think, though, that you are perfectly correct to keep your eye on that inner vision. A fascinating story remains that, across time and despite cultural prescriptions.

  9. Wonderful post! And I especially agree that a lot of this scrutiny seems to be particularly directed at female characters. It was something I noticed in a lot of the criticism about The Marriage Plot, which got reamed by some because Madeline was so focused on marriage and romantic relationships.

    What I really want is characters who are interesting and who make sense within the world of the novel. And I need to have a reason to care about the character and what happens to him or her. But that reason doesn’t have to be affection or even sympathy. Maybe I want the terrible protagonist to learn a lesson or maybe the generally unlikable main character is trying to do something of value.

    • Yes, absolutely! I think it’s the point where the character meets the situation that sparks engagement for the reader, not the character alone. I’m reading a novel at the moment which has a male character who is morally good, but ends up doing dreadful things because he interprets the morals of his age too rigidly – I’m actually getting to the point of disliking him intensely and it raises the stakes of every part of the plot. This makes me think two things – the first that the author was very clever to produce such a complicated and plausible character, and second, would such a character be tolerated in female guise? I remember thinking that the criticism of Madeleine in The Marriage Plot was also unfair, particularly as she was trying every bit as hard to have an academic career as she was to settle her relationships.

  10. I always feel a little bit guilty for admitting that I like sympathetic characters- but I do. So I thought I would defend my position! Though I think you make some good points- particularly about the cultural pressures.

    As to my own thoughts on sympathy- I think for the most part it comes down to whether I care about what happens to the characters, or if they feel well-rounded. I have been guilty of dismissing characters I dislike, but then I feel like these characters are more often male than female (perhaps because there is more pressure to write likeable female characters, as you describe). I had a bit of a turning point reading ‘The Corrections’ when all the characters were unlikeable to me at first, but I came to care about them, flaws and all. I think it’s a good example of characters who are sympathetic but not necessarily likeable. I do feel that going through a whole book in the company of a character I find wearing and uninteresting can make reading the book a chore, so it’s hard to appreciate it objectively.

    • Good for you, Catie. It’s great to see a range of opinions represented on a debate like this. And of course, I can’t but agree that it would be very tiresome to read a novel whose characters fail to spark any interest. Responding to your thoughts, I wonder whether the idea of ‘sympathy’ can end up being interpreted too narrowly, and that we don’t always mean nice and loveable, but interesting and engaging in all kinds of unusual and unique ways. Or it may be that watching a character who starts off dislikeable but who goes through a process of change and adaptation is actually more interesting to follow than someone who is appealing from the outset., which may be what made the difference for you in The Corrections.

  11. I’ve spent the morning working on ‘Troilus and Cressida’ for a class I’m teaching later in the week and it strikes me that if Shakespeare had had to limit himself to sympathetic characters that’s one play that would definitely never have seen the light of day. Even Hector has his moments, especially when talking to his wife and sister.

    • Oh I love this comment. The fact that Shakespeare remains so popular means that his characters still exert a fascination over the audience, and often the more flawed they are, the more enthralled the spectators.

  12. I had a reviewer once say that she had trouble finishing one of my books because the heroine was too assertive and independent sexually. She thought that the seduction scene was more of a female raping the hero and thus couldn’t understand how to care about the hero if he would fall in love with a rapist. Wow! I really liked that female character! And the male was blind so had led a very sheltered life. He needed someone that assertive to bring him out of his shell.

    Honestly, I get tired of reading books with shy and retiring or virginal heroines who have to be taught about life by an older, more experienced man. What is wrong with reversing that trope?
    Female characters should be allowed to be imperfect as well, as long as they have a growth curve within the story.

    • Oh I quite agree. My point is that there’s a big difference between choosing to depict a female character who is forthright and active, and a kind of blanket suggestion that all female characters, no matter what their circumstances, must behave in certain ways to be acceptable. What I find most interesting in your comment is the fact that it’s the woman who is singled out for criticism here by the reviewer, not the man. I agree that growth, development, change are what’s interesting in characters over the course of a story.

  13. I totally agree, especially with the observation that this tendency is particularly associated with female characters. One of the problems I frequently have with genres aimed at a female audience is that I feel the heroines are crying out for the individuality that comes with sharp edges and choices and opinions the reader is not guaranteed to like. Sometimes I get the impression the author has left the plea “Like me” all through them like a stick of rock, and it’s distracting. Reviews tend to amply explain the author feeling this way — there’s a very close, and rather strange relationship between the heroine and the reader. While being unlike the reader is the biggest cause of complaint, being too like often makes them feel uncomfortable too. Sometimes I wonder if readers occupy their ideal selves while reading more often than writers do when writing — they feel they identify best with someone who always does the right thing, but what about the writer?

    Sometimes I feel thrown off my stance in argument for unsympathetic characters, when I find myself not enjoying a book because of the unsympathetic characters. That happens when there’s a particular far-away tone of smallness dissected and I don’t feel as if the author is themself much interested. I’m in favour of unsympathetic characters when they’re used to add a greater sense of vitality. Perhaps I don’t even mean unsympathetic characters so much as characters that are not painstakingly, obviously crafted to be likeable or unlikeable, but seem simply to be themselves because they can be nothing else.

    • Chloe, I love what you say here, particularly your remarks about the characters with ‘like me’ stamped through the middle, and the observation that protagonists can unsettle readers as much if they are too like them as if they are not like them at all. And your final insight, that characters need to be as much themselves as living breathing individuals is spot on, I think. You really nail the problems I’m having with this issue, and I think you’re right that the problems are more about the way the character is conceived by rote than by the provocation of sympathy per se.

  14. Sorry to be coming to this so late, but, Ms. Litlove, I find your thoughts on sympathetic characters to be, as usual, shrewd, helpful and…sympathetic. And the same goes for your visitors. What a marvelous collection of interesting folks you have stopping by here so often. But in my typically simple-minded way, I find myself wanting wanting to reverse some terms. First of all, the kinds of characters I invariably judge unsympathetic can be smart or stupid, sweet or sour, ugly or lovely, essentially good or often evil…well, you get the idea. What they all have in common and why I find them unsympathetic, or “not worthy of depiction” (yes, I think I’ve found a use for that strange phrase!) is this: they’re flat and unconvincing, without credible motivation or plausible action; they’re simple when they need to be complex, they’re dull and uninteresting because they don’t appear to be genuinely alive. In short, they’re not compelling because they don’t match up well with everything life has taught us about the myriad manifestations of the human animal.

    A while back I think I mentioned that I continued writing the story of my novel The Obsession into a second book because the characters had lodged themselves in my heart. I did not mean that I loved those characters in the sense that I was sympathetic to them and their plight. No, what makes me love the characters I create are those magical moments when they come alive and go their own way, when they surprise, puzzle and confound me. At those special times they’re full of verve and contradiction, and they’re exciting to me because they often feel so damn real. Yes, I think you’re right to worry about the commercial influence of agents, editors and readers in this new, hyper-connected world of publishing. But to me, and I expect to any serious novelist, all that matters is not how likeable our characters are, but whether they truly live and breathe.

    • Tom, having read through all my comments and had more time to think about this issue now, I completely agree. I think that the idea of ‘sympathy’ is being interpreted in its most narrow sense by editors, when what readers really want is genuine, interesting characters whom we can feel breathing. I wish I could remember where I read it, but years ago now I saw a quotation that said as long as a writer was talking about the truth of human nature, the reader would be interested. I think that’s true. I also think that your characterisation in the novel I read was excellent, and so I would always trust your opinion!

      On a different note, I’ve been trying to send you an email, but your inbox is apparently full. Delete a few messages! Then mine can get through. 🙂

  15. This is a great post, litlove, and so perceptive! I often find readers complaining that they don’t like the characters in a novel; I had never noticed before that it was gender-oriented and I shall pay more attention to that, it seems very plausible.

    For me, sympathy has to do with viewpoint; if you can get me to believe in a character and its motivations – and I’m writing this in an uncertain way, because I want to include ‘characters’ in more experimental works too and I’m not sure how I would describe that – then I have sympathy. In its broadest meaning and, yes, even for the loathsome Humbert Humbert – I abhorred what he was and what he did when I read the book but he was real and compelling too – being in his mind was horrible but interesting. I suppose it comes back, once again, to good writing. On rereading Crime and Punishment I found Raskolnikov was a frightful brat but I was still on a knife’s edge for him the whole way through.

    I understand that sometimes one wants to read a book with likeable characters and a comfortable plot. And sometimes one wants a character who is like oneself. But I live with myself every day and I am surrounded by real people who are not just likeable but loveable. Reading should offer us opportunities to try out something new.

    • Helen, I love your comment. I completely agree that some of the most engaging fiction contains characters that provoke deep and even negative responses in us, particularly when they are in situations whose resolution we long to know. And that does boil down to brilliant writing and a piercing insight into the way that stories work. Bless you for saying that you are surrounded by loveable people and so are prepared to take a walk on the wild side! You are such a dear heart.

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  17. What a great post–I’ve also noticed that readers can sometimes be unduly hard on certain characters if they think they are weak or are not acting as they should. I almost want to champion those characters (Anna Karenina comes to mind most often, or Emma Bovary). Sometimes it’s these characters who are the most interesting and are part of the best stories since they reflect the difficulties and paradoxes of life. Most people are flawed so why shouldn’t a character be as well. I do like a ‘strong’ character but that isn’t always realistic is it. I hadn’t caught on to the gender discrepancy–but you are so right–women do often bear the brunt of this sort of criticism sadly.

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  20. An excellent post Litlove! I want to read books with characters I hate, despire, who upset and revolt me as well as those with whom I might empathise. I cannot understand why one would not want complex, difficult and challenging characters in novels. As to whether they are the “flawed” ones I think that is most certainly up for debate.

  21. Couldn’t agree more. So many Amazon reviews moan that “The main character was not likeable”… I suspect that many readers want their own failings “validated” in a “likeable” character, rather than being shown for what they are: failings. And, worse, it seems that such readers’ definition of a “sympathetic” character is one who is, perhaps, not in fact likeable at all but simply one who “wins”, who doesn’t take any ****.
    One of my all-time favourite novels is “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, whose heroine is the ultimate “victim”: she’s irresolute and weak and lets herself be dominated by circumstances until finally she snaps… Everything about her, though, is true to life, and precisely because of that we feel her suffering.
    Paradoxically, the sympathy many readers want to experience is not sympathy for suffering, but sympathy for victory, and that’s a strange kind of sympathy to my mind.

  22. Writing ought to be diverse. There are all sorts of stories to tell, all different kinds of people and situations out there, and inside each one of us. Books shouldn’t have to be ‘cookie cutter’, always having to fit some sort of mold.
    I tried to like this blog post because I so agree with it, but for some reason it doesn’t work when I click the ‘like’ button.

  23. I’ve written a few female characters that reviewers didn’t like, even though the women grew into better people during the course of the books. In my opinion, females in books ought to be allowed the same freedom of male characters, of being able to grow during the story, so that if you don’t like them at first, you realize why they are the way they are, and you grow with them.

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