“Sympathetic?”

I’ve been in an interesting quandary with this character I’ve been writing. She’s a successful actress who at first glance, might not quite be worthy of sympathy. In my first draft, the first time you met her, she was itching to get off the show she was working on, desperate for a week on vacation in Costa Rica, and while it was clear she was unhappy, no one really connected to the reasons why. That is on me. That is a writer thing.

But as I’ve been working through the character, and been given feedback, I keep coming across the same word: sympathetic. Why should we care about her? Why should the reader want her to leave the show she is working on? All of the questions have been valid. And yet, I keep sitting back because there has been an undercurrent of a question as the situation of the sexual harassment she is enduring is revealed: well, she’s made the choice to be in that situation. So again, why should it matter? 

Over the past few months, I have definitely succeeded in making this character stronger and more well rounded as a human being. All of the things I’d sketched out initially in my head for character development have emerged in the telling of her tale. She’s gone from being an A-List Actress to being human. My writing group has been instrumental in that development and I thank them for it. But … the question still remains. 

Even with the sexual harassment, there is an undercurrent of: did she ask for it? Is she making the choice to stay? 

Is she sympathetic enough? 

I think from a writer perspective, these are crucial questions. It’s my job to make my reader cheer when good things happen to good people. It’s my job to make my reader give a shit. But there is also this perspective that I’m haunted by – because to me, my characters are as human as I am. And shouldn’t we feel sympathy for a woman who is trapped in a situation where she is worried if she says “no” she will lose everything she has worked for? 

So on the one hand, I’m walking the line  of “Wait a minute!” And on the other, I’m wondering just how “sympathetic” I’m going to need to make this character. And what is staying with me is that (it feels like) the majority of the “sympathetic” comments are coming from my male counterparts while my female ones are missing Gina’s early strength and how tough she was to begin the story. 

Last night, I opened her introduction and read it for the 9,000,000,000 time. I hated it. She wasn’t “sympathetic” enough and in my effort to turn her into a more human character, I found her walking a Diva line that is not who she is.

So what wins out?

I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.

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About vegawriters

Writer. Metalhead. Pitbull Mom. Geek. Bisexual. Poly. Activist.

Posted on August 16, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. That’s a tough place to have a character. People can sympathize with a person being a victim only to a point. I found this in Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint: (Note Nora was the name of the character example)

    “You can compensate for this weakening of the victim by devoting some time to showing, in detail, that Nora had no choice but to put herself in the power of her tormentor. Or you can show how courageous Nora is for refusing to despair.”

    I can bring the book Thursday, in case you want to browse.

    Another spot in it mentions dependability:
    “Don’t underestimate the importance of a promise in fiction. The pledge, kept or broken, is one of the strongest motifs running through all of the world’s storytelling.”

    Which got me thinking. I haven’t read your manuscript to know how good of a suggestion this is, but what if your heroine had made some sort of promise, maybe to herself, about how she’s going to make this relationship work (does she have a string of short-term relationships, or a lot of just dating people and not committing in her past?) Or perhaps its a rebellious promise, like, to show her family/friends (someone specific) that she CAN be with this hot catch of a partner. Slipping in something to do with a promise might buff up her credibility/strength/conviction of why she’s having a hard time leaving.

    So why hasn’t she left?
    Her answer: “It’s complicated.”

    • Thanks for the examples! I have worked out some new ways of introducing the situation that create a lot more empathy than sympathy. I hope … 😉 But if you want to bring that book, I’d love to take a look through it.

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