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).

Continue reading

Offence, Sympathy and Ordinariness


Shannon Hale posts on books that cause offence (and hopes hers will) and asks what offends readers: The Great Galley Giveaway

I’m offended by books that insult my intelligence: poorly written, poorly edited, poorly characterised, characters that are of course untrustworthy/malevolent/hypocritical/silly/fabulous because they are Jewish/Muslim/Christian/female/gay, etc. There are other books I prefer not to read because of their content, but I (almost always) put them down out of choice, not offence.


Jennifer Kesler on The Hathor Legacy has gone back for a second look at Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: Neverwhere: review, take two. I’m really glad she did this because there was some controversy and discussion about her first review and it was interesting to see the discussion there (Neil joined in) and see her new opinions on the book and how he treats the characters. What I found particularly interesting was that although she felt he treated the female characters with respect, she didn’t like them as much as the male characters, many of whom were either funny or sympathetic to other characters. That sort of sympathy/empathy is often held up as being a feature of female characters, and Jennifer replied that that could be seen as a role reversal in itself.


Again on the Hathor Legacy Jennifer writes on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and “[normalizing] the idea of a girl going on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest”.

I do like it when people just do things without making issues out of them (that’s why my favourite movie is my favourite – ah, Chard!), but I was more struck by Jennifer’s comment that “Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home.” I’ve been thinking about how few heros (or heroines) seem to be around these days who don’t have magical powers, and this made me remember how much Coraline reminds me of Alice: unremarkable, unmagical, practical and sensible. And I do like heroines – and characters in general – like that. Alice in Wonderland’s slightly supercilious common sense, the remarkable scrapes E. Nesbit’s children get into (whether assisted by magic, as in The Enchanted Castle or Five Children and It, or entirely through their own efforts, as in The Story of the Treasure Seekers), the awful ordinariness of Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Clarence Scrubb and Jill Pole.

So many characters are extraordinary (often secretly so): secretly brilliant, magical, gifted, princesses, Destined, beautiful, inspired… I enjoy stories about people whose unique qualities eventually become recognised. But I also adore stories about utterly mundane people who manage to get by regardless: the dull, respectable heros, the plain practical heroines, the brave but not brilliant lassies, the smart but silly children, the lazy Jacks of the tales, all the people who are envious and proud and boring and irritating and who have adventures anyway, and change, and change the world.

Diana Wynne Jones, of course, manages to have it both ways: quite horribly human characters whose undiscovered abilities don’t necessarily make them or their extensive and awful families any better. And then, of course, she makes you love them anyway (sort of the opposite of Joss Whedon, who makes you love characters and then does awful things to them).