BREAKING BAD, DEADPOOL, DIE HARD, ERIN BROCKOVICH, flawed protagonist, fortitude, higher ideals, humor, sympathy, THE SOPRANOS, transgression, undeserved misfortune -


Very often, readers and talent (and audiences) are looking for characters who are sympathetic, particularly the protagonist. We need a degree of sympathy if we are to emotionally invest in the character’s story. Some writers take this desire for a sympathetic protagonist as a demand for a protagonist without vulnerabilities or flaws; it’s Captain America or nothing. That isn’t the case. We can and should be able to find sympathy for characters despite their flaws, in the same way we do for our flawed fellow humans. There are a few tried-and-true ways to develop character sympathy, even (or especially) with anti-heroes.

Undeserved misfortune. Something bad happens to the character through no fault of their own: an accident, an attack, an illness, a loss, etc. The key is to be sure the misfortune is truly undeserved. For example, we might very well feel bad for a character if he gets run over by a car, but not if this occurs while he’s running around on the freeway for no reason. The misfortune has to be a true lightning strike in order to generate sympathy.

Humor. We like people who make us laugh. Even if the character behaves badly, we’re apt to forgive them if they’re funny, or at least not judge them as harshly. For example, Deadpool is a killer by trade, but he’s hilarious so we can overlook the whole “murder-for-hire” thing.

Transgression. Somewhat related: we sympathize for a character who does or says things we wish we had the courage to say or do. They are brash, perhaps even obnoxious, but they say things that need to be said to people who need to hear them. In Erin Brockovich, our titular protagonist has no hesitation in taking on the corporation she’s fighting. While this lack of filter also pushes away the man who loves her, we can still get behind Erin and her story because we respect her fearlessness.   

Higher ideals. Though flawed, the character also maintains ideals that we find to be valuable. Perhaps there is a strong sense of morality in place; the character has lines they won’t cross, and will take up a fight to defend what they think is right. For example, though Walter White and Tony Soprano are capable of horrendous acts, both men love their families, would lay down their lives to defend them, and in fact are driven to engage in their less-than-moral actions in order to provide for them (though perhaps that’s nothing more than a justification). 

Fortitude. It’s easier to sympathize with characters who react to dangers and troubles with a clear sense of inner strength. For example, though John McClane in Die Hard is often frightened, he handles it with dark humor and a willingness to face the danger, anyway. Compare this to a character who complains and cries and fills their diaper; in a comedy in which we’re meant to laugh at the character, sure, but in a thriller or drama not so much.

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