How To Create Immediate Sympathy For Your Protagonist (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at a handful of ways on how to create immediate sympathy for your protagonist. Plus, we defined ‘sympathy’ as general pity or arising out of unfortunate circumstances for the main character.

Here, we shall look at a further seven ways on how to create immediate sympathy for your protagonist.

Watching A Loved One Fade Away

There are few things that are more painful than watching a loved one fade away due to an incurable disease. It is heart-rending and gut-wrenching. When your protagonist is in this situation, the audience instantly feels his powerlessness, as he can do nothing.

Moreover, we should feel the emotional turmoil that he goes through and he responds to it. In addition, we should see what he learns from his experiences and (if there is time) how events change him.

Example – Conor from A Monster Calls

In this heart-breaking book/film, Conor is a 12-year-old boy whose mother is dying of terminal cancer. His father is absent, and he is forced to live with his strict grandmother.

Conor is in a dreadful predicament and our hearts break for him. He looks exhausted, cannot concentrate in class (understandably), and draws to occupy his mind.

Conor is a good boy, but he is desperate for help. So, at night he calls upon a monster (he is only 12, after-all). Through the Monster, we gain a profound insight into Conor’s psyche and we see how Conor comes to terms with his situation.

In A Monster Calls, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) calls upon the Monster, which forms out of a yew tree (and voiced by Liam Neeson) to help with his impossible situation.

Suffering From An Ailment

In a similar vein to the above, when your main character suffers from a degenerative illness or a cancer, your audience will automatically sympathise with him. This is because, again, it is not the main character’s fault that he is suffering from this ailment.

The author should make the audience feel the protagonist’s confusion. That way, we can fully appreciate all that he is going through. Plus, we should see how the ailment affects his personality, decisions and actions.

Example – Still Alice

Julianne Moore won her Oscar as the titular Alice, and it is easy to see why. In this heart-breaking film, Alice is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. This is a horrible disease to acquire in old age, but as Alice gets it in her fifties there is an added cruelty that pains us even more.

We watch as Alice starts to forget things and as she mentally deteriorates. A physical deterioration takes place too, to give us a visual representation of what is happening to her on the inside.

We feel for her (and her family) as the disease ravishes this once beautiful and intelligent woman. It is enough to bring tears to the eyes.

A Bit Of A Loser

There is something pitiful about someone who cannot get their act together, lives in the past, and is dependent on others financially to get by, day to day. These kinds of people are mostly harmless, which is why they elicit sympathy from us. Plus, as they aren’t bad people, we don’t mind spending time with them (occasionally).

The same is true for a protagonist who is a bit of loser. For the purpose of a narrative, you just have to make him get off his backside and strive for a goal.

Example – The Wrestler

how to create immediate sympathy for your protagonist - the wrestler
Randi the Ram (Mickey Rourke) might look impressive in the ring, but he lives a sad life that makes us pity him.

In this 2009 drama, Mickey Rourke plays Randi the Ram (although there is more than a hint of the autobiography in this role as Rourke was a wrestler in his youth).

Randi is a wrestler past his prime. He lives in a rundown trailer, plays old video games in his spare time, and goes to the local strip club for a bit of pleasure. Indeed, his life is one of unfulfillment and sadness, which makes us feel sorry for him.

But Randi wants one last shot at wrestling. For this, we commend him and are eager to see how his goal changes him; especially, as it is dangerous to his health.

The Inner Struggle That Your Protagonist Doesn’t Want To Deal With

Often with a flaw, the main character is not aware of it. His flaw is his ruination in the end, but he will not realise it until it’s too late, like hubris for Macbeth.

Nevertheless, it is very different when a character is fully aware of his flaw and refuses to deal with it. This is an inner struggle that should tear him apart throughout the narrative.

The audience can only read/watch such a character with pity. Probably, they know someone with a flaw that is the root cause of this person’s self-destructiveness. As a result, the audience has inkling that things will not end well for the protagonist.

Example – Shame

In this 2012 drama, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict. He is doing quite well career-wise, but on a personal level he is in turmoil. This is because he has an addiction that he refuses to deal with.

His addiction is the cause of his anger and why he cannot enjoy a happy, loving relationship. Sex for him is agony, and his addiction worsens as he sinks to ever lower levels.

Partner Is A Cheat

How to create immediate sympathy for your protagonist? One such way is have his partner cheat on him. This is because when a partner has an affair, it can feel like a violation for the other. The partner can make his other feel worthless and destroy the other’s self-esteem in a heartbeat.

As a writer you must show how the cheated one (the protagonist) feels. That sense of worthlessness will make the audience sympathise with him immediately.

Example – Nocturnal Animals

In Tom Ford’s 2016 noir thriller, Susan (Amy Adams) is an unhappy marriage, and her husband (Armie Hammer) goes on ‘business trips’ to cheat on her. Susan knows it. She just goes along with it, whilst feeling utter awful on the inside.

Initially, we are made to believe that her husband’s infidelity is what is eating her from the inside. This makes us pity her (even though she has everything you could ask for, materialistically).

(However, as the film progresses, we learn that her husband’s infidelity is not the only thing that is devouring her from within. When we realise Susan’s truth, the audience may feel a tad less sympathy for her.)

Despite her enviable appearance and fabulous life, Susan (Amy Adams) is miserable in part because her husband is a cheat. We feel for her up to a point…

When A Partner Wants A Divorce

When a partner wants a divorce, there is nothing the other can do about it (even if one of them wants to continue with the relationship). ckering (not to mention the horrible divorce settlement).

Unless one of the people in the relationship is violent or a drug addict (or both), the audience pities the one who does not want to get divorced. We know that divorce is often an ugly process with plenty of bickering. Moreover, the protagonist is likely to fight an uphill battle to reach a (half-)decent settlement. Plus, he is not going to see his kids (if he has any) as often as he would like.

Example – Mrs Doubtfire

Early on in Mrs Doubtfire, Miranda (Sally Fields) tells her husband, Daniel (Robin Williams) that she wants a divorce. Daniel seems like a nice, funny guy (if a bit of an overgrown child), who does not deserve his wife’s harsh demand.

Initially, we feel for Daniel. Not only can he not see his kids much, Miranda begins dating Stu (Pierce Brosnan), an arsehole who’s rich.

It is Daniel’s desperation that drives him to do something mad and become the elderly Mrs Doubtfire, just so that he can see his children every day. His decision (though marketed as comical) just makes him come across as a sad guy.

A Father Whose Son Wants Nothing To Do With Him

At face value, it is deeply saddening when a son no longer wants to have anything to do with his father. For sure, there should be good reason for the son to treat his father this way. (Generally-speaking, a son does not just tell his father to do one for no reason.)

Still, though, it is devastating for the father. In many ways, a son not wanting anything to do with his father is the ultimate repudiation of his parenting skills. The father should feel heartbroken in this scenario and the audience should pity him as a result.

Example – Warrior

In this 2011 drama, Paddy (Nick Nolte), a former alcoholic, has two sons and neither want anything to do with him. As it happens, the younger son, Tommy (Tom Hardy), comes to live with him so that Paddy can train him as a boxer.

Nevertheless, Tommy makes it abundantly clear that their relationship is strictly professional. And Tommy sticks to this rigidly. It is hurtful to watch, and the audience feels Paddy’s pain; especially, when he breaks and drinks himself into a drunken, crying stupor.

how to create immediate sympathy for your protagonist - nick nolte in warrior
Paddy (Nick Nolte) breaking down as his sons want nothing to do with him. It is a disheartening scene and the audience pities him.

Thank You

Thank you for reading this blog piece on how to create immediate sympathy for your protagonist. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, particularly if you think I have missed anything out.


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