Sympathy is often given little more than a passing nod by the authors of how-to-write-fiction books. Gaining the reader's sympathy for your characters is crucial to inducing the fictive dream, and if you don't effectively induce the fictive dream, you haven't written a damn good novel.
Sympathy is a frequently misunderstood concept. Some how-to-write-fiction authors have made a pseudo-rule that says that for a reader to have sympathy for a character, the character must be admirable. This is patently not true. Most readers have a lot of sympathy for a character like, say, Defoe's Moll Flanders, or Dickens's Fagin in Oliver Twist:, or Long John Silver in Stevenson's Treasure Island. Yet these characters are not admirable in the least. Moll Flanders is a liar, a thief, and a bigamist; Fagin corrupts youth; and Long John Silver is a rascal, a cheat, and a pirate.
A few years ago there was a film called Raging Bull about former middleweight boxing champion Jake LaMotta. The character in the film beat his wife, then divorced her when he started to succeed in the ring. He seduced girls who were not of legal age, had a violent temper fueled by paranoia, and spoke in grunts. He was a total savage in the ring and on the street. Yet the character of LaMotta, played by Robert De Niro in the film, garnered a great deal of audience sympathy.
How was this miracle accomplished?
Jake LaMotta at the start of the film was living in ignorance, degradation, and poverty, and the audience felt sorry for him. This is the key: To gain the sympathy of your reader, make the reader feel sorry for the character. In Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, as an example, Jean Valjean is introduced to the reader as he arrives wearily at a town and goes to the inn to eat. Although he has money, he is refused service. He is starving. The reader must feel sorry for this hapless man, no matter what dreadful crime he may have committed.
• In Jaws (1974), Peter Benchley introduces his protagonist Brody at the moment he gets the call to go out and look for a girl missing in the sea. Already aware that the girl is the victim of a shark attack, the reader knows what Brody is about to face. The reader will feel sorry for him.
•In Carrie (1974), Stephen King introduces Carrie in this manner: "Girls stretched and writhed under the hot water, squalling, flicking water, squirting white bars of soap from hand to hand. Carrie stood among them stolidly, a frog among swans." King describes her as fat, pimply, and so on. She's ugly and picked on. Readers feel sorry for Carrie.
• In Pride and Prejudice (1813), Jane husten introduces us to her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, at a dance, where Mr. Bingley tries to induce his friend, Mr. Darcy, to dance with her. Darcy says: " 'Which do you mean?' and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, 'She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me ... '" Obviously, the reader feels sorry for Elizabeth in her humiliation.
• In Crime and Punishment (1872), Dostoevsky introduces Raskolnikov in a state of "morbid terror" because he owes his landlady money and has fallen into a state of "nervous depression." The reader is compelled to feel sorry for a man in a state of such dire poverty.
• In The Trial (1937), Kafka introduces us to Joseph K. at the moment he is arrested, compelling the reader to feel sorry for poor K.
• In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), we meet Henry, the protagonist, as a "youthful private" who's in an army about to go on the attack. He's terrified. The reader, again, will feel sorry for him.
•The very first thing we're told about Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1936) is that she is not beautiful and she's trying to get a beau. In matters of amour, the reader always feels sorry for those who haven't found it.
Certain other situations will also automatically guarantee winning the reader's sympathy. Situations of loneliness, lovelessness, humiliation, privation, repression, embarrassment, danger—virtually any predicament that brings physical, mental, or spiritual suffering to the character—will earn the reader's sympathy.
Sympathy is the doorway through which the reader gains emo tional access to a story. Without sympathy, the reader has no emotional involvement in the story. Having gained sympathy, bring the reader further into the fictive dream by getting him or her to identify with the character.
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