How to Write Sympathetic Characters

One of our most critical jobs as authors is creating sympathetic characters.

At first glance, this may seem like a no-brainer. After all, most of us write our stories based on our love for the main character. However, as was reinforced to me while writing this book, there are several levels of sympathetic characters.

First, we have the characters that just come to life on the page. They’re real, they’re likable, and they’re a joy to write.

But then you have the slightly more difficult characters. These are ones that don’t want to talk to the writer. They sulk in corners and just generally make you want to throw your laptop across the room.

If you can’t get at the heart of a character, how can you share that heart with readers?

I’ve found that the key is getting these characters to talk, whether internally or in dialogue, in the first draft itself or in extracurricular interviews.

Just let loose on the page. At this point, your first goal is not necessarily to construct a scene, but rather to find two important facets of your characters: their greatest needs and their greatest fears, which will almost always be what’s keeping them from fulfilling their needs.

Keep pushing your characters. Keep asking them questions—either personally or through the medium of another character. Initiate conflict, because this is the best way to get characters to show their true colors. But, remember, you also want to make them sympathetic, even within their  anger or whatever, which means you need to find the places where they’re hurting and show their wounds to readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever struggled to get otherwise sympathetic characters to talk to you? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. thankfully no because not only do I interview all my main characters but I have your CRAFTING UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTERS which has proved to be extremely helpful. Thank you!

  2. Oh, yes! I am struggling a bit to get one of my villains to talk to me right now. Well, he’s a ‘not-quite-villain’ as I call it. He comes across as a villain at first, but it turns out he isn’t a villain after all. It’s hard to explain, but he’s being a bit more withdrawn than the other characters.

  3. @mshatch: Glad it’s been helpful! I simply love doing character interviews. It’s a joy to get down under the surface of beloved characters and find out what makes them tick.

    @Cassie: I love characters like that. Their very complexity can make them difficult to figure out sometimes.

  4. I often have to toss my characters into a brutal fight and almost beat their brains out before they open up to me. Then I take them outta the fight, and put them back in the story… 😉

  5. Writers are such wonderful humanitarians… :p

  6. I’ve tried bribing uncooperative characters with chocolate, but it hardly ever worked. They must have a stronger resolve than I do.

  7. Characters don’t bribe too well, I find. Maybe they just realize how insincere I am and that I’m really just waiting to hammer them with tragedies as soon as they let me inside their walls. That *might* have something to do with it.

  8. Interviewing my characters is a great idea. One of my characters is very grumpy and tight-lipped in the story, so maybe he’d open up more in an interview off the page.
    Thanks for this post!

  9. Grumpy characters can be some of the best. Never know what they’re hiding under their crusty exteriors!

  10. Oh yes I do have trouble with some of my more reticient characters – more often when they’re sulking and you’re not 100% sure what’s driving it. I love the idea of being clever with the conflict so it forces the character to reveal their vulnerable core. Is it wrong that I am now excited to run off and cause havoc?

  11. Every respectable writer has a certain hidden yen for havoc. 😉

  12. I always have a hard time getting the know the character, because I always take a profile worksheet, and expand a one word description, into a full length sentence. Instead of saying he was Intelligent, I do: He was a young lad who used to get all A’s, but his grades has begun to decline after a break up with his 11th grade girlfriend. And then end with a plot driving question: Will he be able to bring his grades up?

  13. Sounds like a bit of the snowflake method: start with a sentence, then a paragraph, then a page, etc.

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