How To Create Instant Sympathy For Your Protagonist (Part I)

We have looked at how to create an instantly likeable protagonist, and how to create immediate empathy for your main character. Now, it is time to discuss how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist.

By ‘sympathy,’ I mean that the audience:

  • Recognises the unfortunate circumstances facing the protagonist faces; or
  • Pities the protagonist.

Thrown Into Prison

When considering how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist, putting him in a jail is a great way to do it. Whether the protagonist deserves to be locked up is neither here nor there. When the audience follows someone in prison, we feel for his situation; particularly, when the bars slam shut on his first night in jail (and he invariably cries).

By any standard, prison is a horrible place. Granted, some are worse than others, but the threat of violence against the protagonist is a daily problem. Thus, it is interesting to see how the main character handles the circumstances, and how they change him as a person.

Example 1 – The Shawshank Redemption

Andy (Tim Robbins) contemplating how he ended up in jail when it is not clear if he even committed murder.

At the start of the film, our central protagonist, Andy (Tim Robbins), is imprisoned for murdering his wife and her lover. We feel for him because:

  1. It is not clear if he even committed the crimes; and
  2. He faces the threat of violence from the inmates and the sadism of the corrupt warden, Samuel Norton.

Example 2 – The Count of Monte Cristo

At the beginning of this classic novel, our main character, Edmund Dantes, has a promising naval character and is about to marry the love of his life, Mercedes.

But on the day of his wedding, he is arrested for treason and locked up in solitary confinement. The injustice makes us root for him in his quest for revenge against the perpetrators.

Example 3 – Tears of a Gangsta

We follow the complex Jason Voorheeze as he survives one tough prison after the next in Tears of a Gangsta by De’Kari, whom I had the privilege of interviewing recently.

In De’kari’s urban fiction series, our protagonist, Jason Voorheeze, is thrown into one jail after another in California. Voorheeze may have been locked up for drug-related offences, but he is a three-dimensional character. He comes from a horrible home, never had a proper education, and sold drugs so he could eat. Many would deem him a ‘no-hoper,’ but he is street-wise and he needs to be in order to survive in some of America’s toughest jails.

Nevertheless, whether you deem him deserving of his punishment(s) or not, Voorheeze is still a human being. Like any sane (and intelligent) person, he does not want to be in prison. In fact, Voorheeze wants to get on with his life. He wants to get out of his situation and break the cycle that keeps bringing him back to prison.

As a reader, we pity Voorheeze for the situation he was born into and finds himself in (i.e. in jail). But we also admire his will to get through prison-hell and make something of himself.

Treated Unfairly

How to create instant sympathy for your protagonist? When your main character is treated unfairly because of circumstances or birth, the audience immediately feels for him. After-all, the unfair treatment dished out to him is a kind of injustice.

Example of A Protagonist Being Treated Unfairly Due To Circumstance – Cinderella (1950)

In Disney’s Cinderella, the film starts with a narration about how Cinderella was her father’s only child from his first marriage. Subsequently, her father married Lady Tremaine and then suddenly died, leaving Cinderella at the mercy of her stepmother (aka the ‘evil stepmother’).

Lady Tremaine forces Cinderella to become a maid, wear rags, and live in the attic/tower of her own estate. Moreover, Lady Tremaine and her two daughters, Drucilla and Anastasia, treat Cinderella horribly.

The unfairness of it all makes us sympathise with Cinderella due to her unfortunate situation. As a result, we root for her, to save herself, from the off.

Example 1 of A Protagonist Being Treated Unfairly Due To Birth – Jon Snow

At the start of A Song of Ice & Fire, Jon Snow is known as (the honourable) ‘Ned Stark’s bastard.’ Although, he lives in a castle and lives a nobleman’s life, he is derided and looked down upon simply because his mother was allegedly of non-noble blood.

Consequently, Jon is not just called names, he is not allowed to sit with his family when King Robert Baratheon visits Winterfell. We feel for him, as it is not easy to be left out; especially, as the reason for being left out is entirely beyond his control.

how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist - make him baseborn like Jon Snow
Jon Snow (Kit Harington), brooding over the injustices dished out to him due to being a bastard, in Game of Thrones Season 1

Example 2 of A Protagonist Being Treated Unfairly Due To Birth – Aladdin (1992)

At the beginning of the movie, Aladdin is a ‘street rat,’ a poor young man, caught stealing food to survive.

In general, Aladdin is an upbeat character (if a liar and a thief), so the audience likes him. But we also sympathise with his situation. It is not his fault that he was born into poverty and is homeless and hungry. (Or that Agrabah, a medieval, Arabian-style kingdom, does not have a welfare system to provide relief for its poor.)

The After-Effects of Torture

How to create instant sympathy for your protagonist? Have him come out of a torture chamber in one guise or another. This is because, whether physical or mental, torture leaves its mark on those who have been victim to it.

Upon meeting a protagonist who has been victim to torture, the audience immediately sympathises with what he has been through. To some extent, we may also understand why he makes the decisions that he does.

Example 1 for The After-Effects of Physical Torture – Glokta Dan Sand

how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist - have him tortured like Glokta Dan Sand
Fan art depicting Glokta Dan Sand, following the torture he suffered before the story starts.

Glokta Dan Sand is an anti-hero in Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. When he was a dashing young colonel, he was captured by the Gurkish Empire. In captivity, he was tortured and mutilated.

Consequently, Glokta is in perennial pain and bitter about it. Nevertheless, we pity with him, as he cannot even lie down without being in agony. (However, does that justify him torturing others into confession for the Inquisition? That’s for you to decide.)

Example 2 for The After-Effects of Physical Torture – Reek

In A Dance With Dragons, the fifth instalment of A Song of Ice & Fire, we are introduced to a ‘new’ POV character, called Reek.G

Nevertheless, before the end of the first chapter, we realise that he is in fact not a new character at all. He is Theon Greyjoy, re-introduced as a man who has been tortured, flayed, and mutilated to the point of having lost his identity.

We gasp and shudder because Reek is unrecognisable from the arrogant, idiotic Theon we used to know. We ask ourselves what happened to him, before wondering if he has paid too high a price for betraying Robb Stark in A Clash of Kings, the second volume in the saga.

Example for The After-Effects of Psychological Torture – Brothers

Early on in this 2009 thriller, Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and Private Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger) are taken captive by the Taliban in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The Taliban starve the two soldiers, deprive them of sleep, and force them to make a humiliating video to discredit the US forces in the country, to break them.

Joe loses his mind, and then the Taliban order Sam to beat him to death or they will kill him instead. Fearing he will never see his girlfriend and his two little daughters again, Sam bludgeons Joe to death.

While the audience may not agree with Sam’s decision, we sympathise with his situation. Indeed, we are glad that we’re not in his shoes. No-one wants to face the choice he has to make.

About To Lose Your Job

Often, a man can lose his job for reasons beyond his control. It can be for political reasons in the workplace, or cost-cutting one, and/or because of a pandemic.

More pertinently, the stresses that come with the loss of employment are manifold and immense. Appreciating this, it is a way for how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist.

Example – Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night

In this French, 2014 drama, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work following a bout of depression and anxiety to find that her company intends to make her redundant. During her absence, her colleagues have covered her workloads and the company intends to maintain the new status quo by increasing their salaries by a thousand euros every month.

Sandra is not wealthy. Her husband and her young daughter need the income. Suffering from severe mental issues (and the feeling of worthlessness), Sandra spends the rest of the narrative trying to convince her colleagues not to take the extra pay so she can keep her job.

The audience appreciates the uphill struggle she faces and sympathises with her immensely. What Sandra has to do is bordering on degrading; especially, as the audience can’t blame her colleagues for wanting to keep the extra money. (They need it as well. Plus, would you refuse a pay increase so that someone you may not care for can keep his/her job?)

how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist - marion cotillard in two days one night
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) looking wrecked in Two Days, One Night as she begs one colleague after another to forfeit the extra pay so she can keep her job.

To Be Continued

We shall continue with how to create instant sympathy for your protagonist in the next blog post. In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed this topic and let me know what you think so far.

Paul

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