Friday, April 13, 2018

What Makes an Unsympathetic Character?

I had not intended it to be this way, and this was just one person's opinion of what I had written so far, but when I let a family friend read what I have written so far of my '80s-set diary novel, she found the main character not to be very sympathetic. Again, I had not intended for it to be like this. She seems  to see as him as "extremely cynical and always seeing the worst about every situation," "always whining about everything,"and that he seems to show no empathy towards others. Would characteristics like this fit the "Unsympathetic Characters" description below (from this site)?

Unsympathetic characters

We seldom identify with unsympathetic characters as they represent those qualities that we dislike.


Villainous characters are those who deliberately break laws, serving an often-selfish purpose in which others may well be harmed or abused in some way. They are the antithesis of the heroic character, embodying all that we find wrong. 
We love to hate villainous characters as they give us an outlet for the dislike we have of others in our lives. We also like to experience the schadenfreude (pleasure at the discomfort of others) when they are punished.


Foolish characters are the opposite of wise characters. They lack knowledge or lack the ability to use knowledge to good effect. They are not the same as the Shakespearian 'fool', who is actually a very wise character.
We throw our hands up in horror or laugh at the fool, and are perhaps secretly grateful that there are others who more foolish than us.


The false character pretends to be something that they are not or deliberately tells falsehoods. They thus embody the socially distasteful deception and untruthfulness that heroes abhor.
Like villainous characters, we like to see the false being exposed and receive just treatment. False characters may also remind us of our own guilty shortcomings as we navigate truth to our own ends. 


Selfish characters do things for their own purpose and may well be careless and callous about how others are affected by their choices.
Audiences are shocked at selfishness that goes beyond socially accepted self-interest and find glee in these people reaping the rewards of their lack of care for others. We may also see ourselves reflected to some extent in the selfish person's limitations and feel some balance of gratitude that there are others who are selfish and anger that they are reflecting us.


Animal characters are, to some extent, the opposite of human characters, displaying inhuman characteristics such as savageness and debauchery.
We are shocked by such lack of even basic humanity and perhaps fear the possibility of such loss of self happening to us. 

Again, this is just how one person sees it. I'm sure others may see it differently. I'm only trying to write what I have seen in other YA/Middle Grade novels, trying to make the character seem angst-ridden. One must be familiar with the genre of books to recognize traits like those. I had no intention to make the character seem selfish. And "only seeing the worst about every situation," this seemingly came about as I intended to show angst often shows by characters in YA/MG books. Martin, the boy in my book, is apprehensive about having to get braces, since in the '80s and the decades before, such a thing was often stigmatized. He makes a chart of why he's looking forward to having braces (straight teeth) vs. not looking forward to it (being called "Metal Mouth," "Tinsel Teeth," etc., not being able to chew gum, having to wear headgear). [Note: I tried to copy the chart from my document, but was unable to do so]. Does this seem to you like he's being overly cynical and only seeing the worst of the situation?

The image at the top of the post is from this site. The post is titled, "Love Me Love My Flaw." The author states:

How many people do you know who are perfect? No one’s perfect. We all have flaws – many of them. So characters in fiction need flaws too. Creating a flaw which works can be a real challenge, especially if you’re new to writing fiction.
This is very true. I now think the character seems to be showing some flaws. The post then says:
The Younger Your Character Is, the Easier It Is to Create a Flaw Which Works.
Rita Henuber writes:
 I feel the younger the character, the more they have to learn and the more flaw possibilities. Consider the cattle baron’s only child, a daughter, comes home from her first semester of college and announces she is now vegetarian and the family are murderers. What’s her flaw? She’s immature and wants to fit in with her college boy friend’s group who are anti everything.
The older a character, the harder it is to make him/ her sympathetic despite a flaw, because that flaw is part of the character. Few people change in any fundamental way once they’re in their 30s and beyond. Their character is set: that’s just the way they are.
Your readers can empathize with a man who’s hot-tempered in his 20s, and gets in trouble because of that. Once he’s in his 30s, that flaw probably won’t work, unless he’s well aware of it, and is actively trying to change.
I now seem to think  this is what I have been doing, even if making an unsympathetic character has not been my intent. 


  1. I DID find Scarlett a deeply unsympathetic character.
    I don't have to like the characters. I have to be interested in them, and what they will do. And they have to grow.

  2. On my personal hobby horse here:)I completely disagree with the animal as an unsympathetic character: Most animals are more humane than a lot of people. Though, I know what the author is saying.
    Hope your weekend is pleasant and productive, Jamie.

  3. I often find that if readers aren't connecting favorably with a character, its because I haven't shown enough about them, their motivation, their thought process, etc. I know all these things, but they're not coming through on the page for the reader just yet.