Observation Journal — sympathy for characters

These two sets of observation journal pages are considering why I find some characters sympathetic.

Short version:

These are three ways for creating sympathetic characters that I found particularly interesting:

  • Authorial kindness for (although not necessarily to) characters.
  • Characters who value each other. (This demonstrates why the reader might care, but also creates something new to protect.)
  • Villains on their worst days. (Unwilling sympathy.)
Three pen drawings of a moustachioed villain, one with an arm-cast, one in pouring rain.
Moustache-twirling villain on (a) moustache twirling and (b) and (c) on bad days

Long version:

I’ve broken down the notes in more detail below (and there’s an art-or-writing exercise at the end).

The first page was an exercise of noticing patterns between some series based on Stephen King’s work (misspelled Stephen here), particularly The Outsider, and Georgette Heyer’s novels. (Patterns between unexpected pairings are usually interesting.)

Handwritten observation journal — on the left, five things seen, heard, done, a drawing of a bottle near some fake mushrooms. On the right, notes on sympathetic characters.
Left page: bats and bicycles and balloons and a sunny winter day

The two main similarities were:

  • A sense of deep kindness towards or for their characters (slightly more in King than Heyer). [Except for one thing, this does not seem to correlate to what happens to the characters.]
  • A sense of those characters moving on a board, over which larger forces (the universe? the author?) preside, and against which you want the characters to triumph. [Even if they don’t.]
    On this, see also: Staginess and Things That Tell You What They’re Doing.

Christie and Innes do this sometimes, in murder mysteries, and for some reason The Conjuring and The Decoy Bride both spring to mind as movies that do this (in different ways).

I tend to want these characters to be good, safe, happy, not to be betrayed or punished for innocence, and to neither be hurt nor harm other characters. [Almost all of these things invariably happen, of course — although punishment for innocence less often, and I think that might tie more to the author’s feeling for their characters.]

Importantly, this does not apply exclusively to “good” or even main characters — it can encompass the unpleasant ones. In their case, it seems to rely on:

  • the taking-away of things from them;
  • a glimpse of the affection once shown to (or occasionally by) them; and
  • [also occasionally giving them their own separate story — The Decoy Bride does this with minor antagonists].
Handwritten observation journal — on the left, five things seen, heard, done, a drawing of a mushroom beside a path. On the right, notes on sympathetic characters.
Left page: Button mushrooms and new grass.

The next week, I played a bit more with principles of sympathy for characters, starting with sketches.

Drawings of various character arrangements, with handwritten notes.

Notes from this include:

  • One character needs reasons for sympathy to be built in [or shown through what they do, but that goes to relationship, below].
  • Two characters immediately set up some interest or resonance. There’s already a relationship, and two people are almost necessarily somewhat out of kilter. Even where they are not antagonistic, the mere existence of a sense of each other as people (and that these characters therefore place some value on each other) begins to create some sympathy.
  • Antagonism comes with a story built in, but one with sides and risks: useful things, but with a harder edge.
  • Interaction between characters creates a new thing to protect. Each character is enhanced by the value they have for/the kindness they have towards the other.
  • Seeing a villain, even of the moustache-twirling variety, on their worst day (King is particularly good at this) can create a pang of unwilling fellow-feeling.

As usual, this is a process of climbing into existing theories and moving around until they fit comfortably with how I work.

Art/writing exercise:

  1. Pick a thoroughly villainous character (yours or someone else’s — if all else fails, try a stereotypical classic moustache-twirling melodramatic villain). Without attempting to redeem them, do a quick drawn or written sketch of them having a bad day. Can you make it shade into sympathy? Where does it shift into humour? Can you make them a tragic character?
  2. Pick a stereotypically good character (yours or someone else’s — if you can’t think of anything, try an adventurous young rabbit, something Janna Mattia might draw). Put them in danger, and do a quick drawn or written sketch. Now consider how you could enhance sympathy for them — by increasing their inherent appeal? by demonstrating some connection to other characters? by showing their value within their world and story?

3 thoughts on “Observation Journal — sympathy for characters

  1. Pingback: July 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal: A good sentence | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Observation Journal — a sequence of week-in-review pages | Kathleen Jennings

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