What Makes a Character (Un)Sympathetic?

Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner
Written by Marc Turner

When reading reviews of my debut, When the Heavens Fall, I’m always curious to find out which character was the reader’s favourite. My book features four point-of-view characters: two women and two men. They are all very different people, ranging from the steadfast but spirit-possessed prince, Ebon, to the hedonistic and charmingly ruthless priestess, Romany. There might just be a consensus forming as to who is the most popular, but even when readers agree on their favourite character, they rarely agree on the others.

I guess there is nothing surprising in this. We don’t all like the same characters in books just as we don’t all like the same people in life. What did surprise me, though, was the degree to which readers could disagree on the “merits” of a particular character. Take Romany, for example. Fantasy Book Review said the following about her: “Intelligent, cunning, immensely likeable, her affable irritation and eventual humanity in the face of the maelstrom of uber-fantasy is remarkably levelling.” A different reviewer, though, went so far as to call her evil. She can’t be both, can she? And if not, who is “right” about her?Image credit Diana Hirsch

It’s an important question for an author to consider. When I’m reading, if I don’t care about what happens to a book’s characters then I put the book down. I want a reason to cheer the characters on. In the “traditional” fantasy that I read as a teen, the writer tended to have an easier job of providing that reason because of the black and white complexion of their worlds. The protagonist was the Chosen One, the antagonist was the Dark Lord, and you’re never going to struggle to choose who to root for between those two, are you?

I prefer characters that are shades of grey, and grey certainly seems to be in fashion nowadays in epic fantasy. Take George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, for example. When we first meet Jaime he is having sex with his sister and pushing a boy to his probable death from a tower window, but he has grown into one of my favourite characters. At times it can be hard in Martin’s books to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Actually that’s not quite true—you can tell the good guys apart on account of the fact that they’re all dead.

I like characters that have to battle against inner demons. I like characters that are facing decisions where the answers are far from clear, and where the consequences aren’t always what you expect. And what could be wrong with adding a few flaws to your characters, right? Think of your friends, your spouse, your parents. Are any of those people wholly without fault? Does that stop you caring about them?

Sometimes flaws can make your characters more sympathetic to a reader for a whole host of reasons. Generally, though, I think the more faults you give your characters, the harder it can be to win the reader’s sympathy for them. But it can be done. Consider Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire series. The main character, Jorg, is a thirteen-year-old sociopath, yet I still found myself rooting for him. What was it about Jorg that made me willing to spend time with him? What is the key to making an otherwise unsympathetic character sympathetic?

I asked Mark Lawrence that question in an interview I did with him earlier this year. His answer was: “Possibly it’s not caring whether you do [make them sympathetic] or not. I just aim to make characters interesting. Sympathy is over-rated.” Lawrence’s Jorg is certainly a fascinating character. Because of his age, I wanted to know the hows and whys of who he is. In Prince of Thorns, we learn that Jorg has been irreparably scarred from witnessing the murder of his mother and brother. This does not excuse the things he does in his pursuit of revenge, but at least it goes some way towards explaining them. And understanding an unsympathetic character is, I would argue, the first step to empathising with them. Would the readers who enjoyed Prince of Thorns have liked the book so much if they hadn’t been given that insight into Jorg’s background?

Another quality that might redeem an otherwise unsympathetic character is honesty. I’ve written elsewhere about the positive changes in Jaime’s character that take place during A Storm of Swords on his journey with Brienne to King’s Landing. But I also want to mention the scene where he is sitting in White Sword Tower reading The Book of the Brothers. There, he remembers the time when he was with Ser Arthur Dayne, and he fought and killed the outlaw known as the Smiling Knight. “And me, that boy I was… When did he die, I wonder?… That boy had wanted to be Ser Arthur Dayne, but someplace along the way he had become the Smiling Knight instead.”

Image credit Ivan BliznetsovJaime is honest about his faults, and with that honesty comes a sense that he wants to do better. He might stumble and fall on the road to redemption, but at least he is heading in the right direction. We are much more likely to sympathise with such a character, than one who refuses to acknowledge his shortcomings. Honesty is a technique I used to evoke sympathy for one of my characters, Parolla, in When the Heavens Fall. Parolla’s background is a mystery at the start of the book, but in time we learn that her parentage has left her with tainted blood. Sometimes the power carried on that blood slips her leash, but she never uses it as an excuse for her actions. Indeed, she tries to fight against her blood’s call, even as the darkness inside her begins to consume her.

A third consideration is humour. I recall reading an interview by Joe Abercrombie in which he said that people will forgive a lot in someone who can make them laugh. I agree. My favourite character in Abercrombie’s The First Law series, Glokta, is a ruthless torturer. He’s also very funny, and that made the scenes in which he features enjoyable to read. In Glokta’s case, the humour is often doubly appealing because it is self-deprecating. That indicates modesty, together with a sense of the honesty I referred to above.

There are other ways to provoke sympathy for a character, such as making them relatable to the reader, or vulnerable, or just setting them at odds with a character they like even less! There is a danger, though, in trying to make your characters too sympathetic. As my editor once put it, in seeking to make a character more likeable you might strip them of their “edge”. Taken to extremes, you could end up with a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu, too perfect to be realistic or interesting. And, of course, a change that makes a character more appealing to one reader might make them less appealing to another.

A lot is down to a reader’s individual preferences, which is why we should be careful against equating “I didn’t like this character” with “This character is a poor character”. It’s also why I’m so surprised when I hear someone pronounce that a particular character is “unlikeable”, as if the final decision were theirs.

So now it’s over to you. Which is the most disagreeable character you have found yourself rooting for in a book, and what was it that made you sympathise with them?

Buy Dragon Hunters today:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | Indiebound | Powell’s

Follow Marc Turner on Twitter at @MarcJTurner and on his website.

Kitty’s Greatest Hits eBook is Now on Sale for $2.99

Kitty's Greatest HitsThe ebook for Kitty’s Greatest Hits by Carrie Vaughn is now on sale for $2.99!*

About Kitty’s Greatest Hits: Kitty Norville, star of a New York Times bestselling series, is everybody’s favorite werewolf DJ and out-of-the-closet supernatural creature. Over the course of eight books she’s fought evil vampires, were-creatures, and some serious black magic. She’s done it all with a sharp wit and the help of a memorable cast of werewolf hunters, psychics, and if-notgood- then-neutral vampires by her side. Kitty’s Greatest Hits not only gives readers some of Kitty’s further adventures, it offers longtime fans a window into the origins of some of their favorite characters.

Buy Kitty’s Greatest Hits today: B&N Nook | eBooks.com | Google Play | iBooks | Kindle | Kobo

*Sale ends March 4, 2016.

New Releases 2/9/16

Dragon Hunters by Marc TurnerMagical Girl Apocalypse Vol. 6 by Kentaro SatoPrime Time by Hank Phillippi RyanShoot by Loren D. Estleman


Angel Beats!: Heaven’s Door Vol. 1 by Jun Maeda

Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation Vol. 2 by Rifujin na Magonote and Yuka Fujikawa

12 Beast Vol. 3 by OKAYADO

Sneak Peek: Character, Driven by David Lubar

Character, Driven by David LubarWith only one year left of high school, seventeen-year-old Cliff Sparks is desperate to “come of age”—a.k.a., lose his virginity. But he’s never had much luck with girls. So when he falls for Jillian, a new classmate at first sight, all he can do is worship her from afar. At the same time, Cliff has to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, since he’s pretty sure his unemployed father plans to kick him out of the house the minute he turns eighteen. Time is running out. Cliff is at the edge, on the verge, dangling—and holding on for dear life.

Enjoy this excerpt of Character, Driven by David Lubar.

Chapter One: She Walks In, Beauty

Venus is the morning star.

As is Jillian.

Let me explain. My school day starts with Calculus, which is a form of math designed to convince people they want to be History majors in college. Our teacher, Mr. Yuler, doesn’t talk much. He’ll write a problem on the board, then sip coffee from his ever-present mug and walk the aisles while we work at our desks. If you’re stuck, he’ll uncap his pen and circle something he feels you should contemplate. It’s not a bad way to start the day, since, between my after-school jobs and my crazy idea that I should make at least a half-assed effort to do a half-decent job on my homework (which multiplies out to a quarter-decent-ass-job), I generally get less sleep than I need. It would be hard to keep my eyes open for a lecture during first period.

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This Case is Gonna Kill Me eBook Now on Sale for $2.99!

This Case Is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa BornikovaThe ebook for This Case is Gonna Kill Me by Phillipa Bornikova is now on sale for $2.99!*

About This Case is Gonna Kill Me: Linnet Ellery is the offspring of an affluent Connecticut family dating back to Colonial times. Fresh out of law school, she’s beginning her career in a powerful New York “white fang” law firm.

But strange things keep happening to her. Office politics can be vicious beyond belief. She becomes the target of repeated violent attacks, escaping injury each time through increasingly improbable circumstances. But there’s more to Linnet Ellery than she knows. As she understands this, she’s going to shake up the system like you wouldn’t believe.

Buy This Case is Gonna Kill Me today: B&N Nook | eBooks.com | Google Play | iBooks | Kindle | Kobo

*Sale ends March 4, 2016.

Blood Song eBook is Now on Sale for $2.99!

Blood Song by Cat AdamsThe ebook for Blood Song by Cat Adams is now on sale for $2.99!*

About Blood Song: Bodyguard Celia Graves has definitely accepted her share of weird assignments, both human and supernatural. But her newest job takes the cake. When she is betrayed by those she is employed to help, and everything goes horribly wrong, Celia wakes to find herself transformed.

Neither human nor vampire, Celia has become an Abomination—something that should not exist—and now both human and supernatural alike want her dead. With the help of a few loyal friends—a sexy mage, a powerful werewolf, and a psychic cop—Celia does her best to stay alive.

Buy Blood Song today: B&N Nook | eBooks.com | Google Play | iBooks | Kindle | Kobo

*Sale ends March 4, 2016.

Royal Street eBook is Now on Sale for $2.99!

Royal Street by Suzanne JohnsonThe ebook for Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson is now on sale for $2.99!

About Royal Street: As the junior wizard sentinel for New Orleans, Drusilla Jaco’s job involves a lot more potion-mixing and pixie-retrieval than sniffing out supernatural bad guys like rogue vampires and lethal were-creatures. DJ’s boss and mentor, Gerald St. Simon, is the wizard tasked with protecting the city from anyone or anything that might slip over from the preternatural beyond.

Then Hurricane Katrina hammers New Orleans’ fragile levees, unleashing more than just dangerous flood waters. While winds howled and Lake Pontchartrain surged, the borders between the modern city and the Otherworld crumbled. Now, the undead and the restless are roaming the Big Easy, and a serial killer with ties to voodoo is murdering the soldiers sent to help the city recover.

Buy Royal Street today: B&N Nook | eBooks.com | Google Play | iBooks | Kindle | Kobo

*Sale ends March 4, 2016.

Join Susan Dennard and Veronica Rossi on Tour!


Susan Dennard and Veronica Rossi will be on the road February and March for the official #TruthRider Tour to celebrate the publication of Truthwitch and Riders! See if they’re coming to a city near you.

Wednesday, February 17
Schuler Books & Music
Also with EK Johnston
Lansing, MI
7:00 PM

Thursday, February 18
Bethesda Library
Books provided by Politics and Prose
Also with Kami Garcia
Bethesda, MD
7:00 PM

Wednesday, February 24
Books and Books
Coral Gables, FL
7:00 PM

Thursday, February 25
Malaprop’s Bookstore
Asheville, NC
7:00 PM

Saturday, February 27
Montgomery County Book Festival
The Woodlands, TX
All Day

Sunday, February 28
Morton Ranch High School
Also with Sophie Jordan
Houston, TX
6:00 PM

Tuesday, March 1
Half Price Books
Also with Kathleen Baldwin
Dallas, TX
7:00 PM

Saturday, March 5
Austin Book Fest
Austin, TX
All Day

Sneak Peek: Arkwright by Allen Steele

ArkwrightWritten by highly regarded expert on space travel and exploration Allen Steele, Arkwright features the precision of hard science fiction with a compelling cast of characters.

Nathan Arkwright is a seminal author of the twentieth century. Convinced that humanity cannot survive on Earth, Nathan’s Arkwright Foundation dedicates itself to creating a colony on an Earth-like planet several light years distant. Fueled by Nathan’s legacy, generations of Arkwrights are drawn together, and pulled apart, by the enormity of the task and weight of their name.

Enjoy this excerpt of Arkwright.

Chapter 1

When Kate Morressy’s grandfather died on October 5, 2006, his passing made the front page of next morning’s Boston Globe. The headline—NATHAN ARKWRIGHT, SCIENCE FICTION PIONEER, DIES—appeared in the bottom-right corner below the fold, and it was the first thing Kate saw when she picked up the paper from the front stoop of her Cambridge apartment house.

Still wearing her robe, Kate stared at the newspaper in her hand for a long time before she carried back into her apartment. Pausing to pour her first cup of coffee, she lay the paper down on the kitchen table and read the lead:

Nathan Arkwright, the science fiction author best known as creator of the Galaxy Patrol, died Thursday at his home in Lenox, Massachusetts.

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The Grays eBook is Now on Sale for $2.99

The Grays by Whitley StrieberThe ebook for The Grays by Whitley Strieber is now on sale for $2.99!*

About The Grays: Whitley Strieber returns to the riddle of aliens with The Grays. Drawing from a lifetime of research and his own experiences, Strieber offers up a fictional account of the conspiracy behind the alien presence on Earth while also giving us a startling look inside the alien mind that will astound, frighten, and enthrall readers.

Meet the Three Thieves, a group of Grays assigned to duty in a small Kentucky town. They have been preparing a child for generations. Innocent Conner Callaghan will face the ultimate terror as he struggles to understand who he has been breed to become, and what he must do to save humanity. Meet Colonel Michael Morax, who strives to keep the secret of the Grays from the public. And then there’s Lauren Glass, government “empath” to the last surviving captive Gray, known only as B for Bob. Her unique talent to communicate with this captive Gray may be the only way humans can unravel their ultimate plan.

But when B for Bob suddenly escapes the highly secure underground Air Force facility that he’s been captive in for years, it triggers a mass undertaking in that small Kentucky town. A frantic race begins, as the government must outmaneuver the Grays to keep the secret of the presence intact.

Buy The Grays today: B&N Nook | eBooks.com | Google Play | iBooks | Kindle | Kobo

*Sale ends March 8, 2016.