Let me guess: someone read your story and called one of your characters “unsympathetic.” You’re here to figure out what, exactly, that means. Don’t worry, it doesn’t mean they’re unlikeable. An unlikeable character isn’t necessarily a problem. A reader can still sympathize with a character they don’t like. 

Oftentimes, writers take “unsympathetic” to mean that their character is just too complex for the reader to understand. That’s not the case. It actually means that the reader doesn’t care what happens to them. 

That’s a big problem. 

This happens because they don’t understand the character’s inner world – what motivates them, their thoughts and feelings. They are completely disengaged from what’s going on with them, which could also mean your character is static. 

Do they develop throughout the story? Are there new revelations to learn about them? Do they express how they feel about events that happen in their life? If they remain elusive, it’s hard for the reader to find something to connect with. 

To make a reader feel sympathy, your character must do and say things that make the reader care about them. This all comes down to presentation. If your character poisons people, chances are you aren’t only going to show them doing this. You also show them in their day-to-day lives, doing things the reader can relate to or make an emotional connection with. Understanding something about your character – such as why they do what they do – allows them to care about them.

How to craft a sympathetic character

To fix this, first give your character a backstory. Even if the backstory is not explicitly detailed to the reader, it will bleed into the story by influencing their decisions and behavior. Next, think about the motivation behind their actions. Any action can spark sympathy if it is properly motivated. A reader is more likely to sympathize with a character who kicks a dog only to save a child than one who kicks a dog for a twisted sense of power and control. If a character does something bad not because they’re manipulated or well-intentioned, but simply just because, the reader will withdraw. If your character does anything bad, there must be a chance of their behavior improving if their situation changed for the better in order for the reader to maintain interest. An evil character will stay just as evil, so a reader will disengage. 

Once you’ve identified their background and motivations, make sure they have relatable goals. Whether they are selfish or altruistic, these must resonate with the readers. Goals that evolve over time from bad to better, reflecting the character’s growth, can make even initially unsympathetic characters more engaging. Then, give them agency – characters need to be active to maintain a dynamic and engaging narrative. Let them make decisions and face the consequences. And if they aren’t active, due to physical barriers like captivity or psychological barriers like depression, other characters need to force them into motion. Moreover, some of those actions should be the character helping themselves. This maintains an emotional connection for the reader and keeps the story moving.

If your character has too many bad qualities from the start (too selfish, abusive, etc.), the reader may not be able to sympathize with them. Nobody’s perfect, so you shouldn’t take away all their bad attributes, but create a balance by giving them some good qualities, as well. 

Another thing you can do to make your character more sympathetic is to show them moving through everyday struggles – things real people face, like being late to class, trying to make ends meet financially, wearing their shirt inside out without noticing until after their important meeting. But more than that, show them facing deeper issues, such as marginalization due to their race or gender. 

Finally, as they go about their lives, linger in their heads. Allow the reader to see how they perceive things as they occur and their responses to those events. Give them deep feelings so that the reader can learn more about them.

Keep genre in mind

The genre of the story influences the type of characters readers expect to find. For instance, in literary fiction, readers will accept a terribly flawed character if the writing is interesting. That’s not enough for romance readers, who are very particular about wanting their heroine to be someone they can see themselves reflected in – someone who is smart, compassionate, and who has a strong sense of self-worth. 

Thrillers aren’t as picky. Those characters just need to be resilient and ready for a fight. Mysteries have a preference for quirky characters who tend to be loners – think Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple. 

While designing (or re-designing) your character, look up the conventions of the genre you are in. What kind of qualities does a reader expect from them?

Don’t make your character pitiful

The goal is to inspire sympathy, not pity. Your character should not come off as a victim, no matter how horrible their background may be. To achieve this, give them a quality (or a coping mechanism) that helps them fight their way out of a bad situation. 

Some people use humor. Some people are strong. Use this to capture your reader’s attention and make them want to find out more.

What if I want my character to be unsympathetic?

A purposefully unsympathetic character is obnoxious. Think of how teenage boys act, then multiply that several times. These characters think up regular schemes to spark outrage – and often, are comically rude. So why have one? 

People do unsympathetic things all the time. It can be an interesting and realistic element to explore. But, more importantly: drama

Think of a normal cast of characters. They typically get along well and external factors are necessary to spark conflict among them. But a character who always does mean things just because they want to is an endless source of tension and conflict. 

If you’re going to include a purposefully unsympathetic character, make it clear that the narrator does not condone their behavior. 

Stories are propelled by reactions

Ultimately, characters are the heart of a story. How they respond to the events that occur around them is what makes a story compelling. If they don’t act or express their feelings about those events, there is a disconnection. The readers can’t understand them, so they never get a chance to care about what happens next. 

To create sympathy, open up their inner world to the reader. Be vulnerable. Be real. Be reactive.