DEVELOPING SYMPATHY FOR CHARACTERS, PART 2
Here are some other common tools that are used to generate reader/audience sympathy for characters, especially protagonists and antagonists.
They care for somebody. The character is taking care of someone, perhaps an elderly parent, a sick spouse, a child. Even a pet will do the trick. This shows us the character is capable of emotions we can get behind: selflessness, empathy, love. This is why we will often see the tired trope of the character doing X in order to get money for an operation for their sick child/parent/etc. We’re willing to excuse almost any X behavior because we understand the motivation behind it.
Somebody likes them. This one is a little trickier. What we do is give the character someone who likes them. This can work with a child, parent, sibling, etc. but in those cases we can more easily assume they only like/love the character due to family relations.
This better plays if it’s a friend, girl/boyfriend, spouse, i.e. people who don’t have to have a relationship with the character. And the more we like the “liking” character, the better this lands. Because the relationship makes thus think… Well, if s/he likes this person, then there must be something to like, right? So for example while it’s nice that Aunt May loves Peter Parker, we get more impact from the fact that Mary Jane Watson, Harry Osbourne, and even the girl across the hall all seem to like him, too.
However, for this strategy to work we need to pay it off in some way. For example, I just read a script in which the protagonist is kind of a petty schemer, but he has a girlfriend who’s smart and cool and really loves him. I saw the girlfriend character for what she was: a device by which to generate sympathy for this otherwise somewhat loathsome character. So I kept my eyes open for reasons the protagonist would offer to pay off the girlfriend’s interest. And… it never came. So it was too obvious that the girlfriend was only a device. Left unfulfilled, the device only shows the artificiality of the choice. We like the “liked” character even less.
Justification. The character’s actions feels justified in such a way that we can get behind the thought process. For example, the protagonist is wronged: their loved ones are attacked, their lives are ruined, etc. And thus they (and we) can justify all kinds of violent behavior on the part of the protagonist, because we instinctively understand the desire for righteous retribution. This plays for everything from The Count of Monte Cristo to Death Wish to The Punisher to The Crow to Taken. The list goes on and on. In many ways, the entire action genre is predicated on first getting the audience to root for violent things to happen to the antagonist. Once that justification is in place, we can enjoy all kinds of mayhem we might otherwise find abhorrent.