Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sympathetic Characters

I’ve never really been very interested in Superman.  It’s not that I don’t like the character at all; it’s just that he’s not nearly as interesting to me as other super-heroes and fictional characters.  But it wasn’t until recent conversations that I figured out for sure why Superman doesn’t make my favorites list.  It comes down to things being too easy for him.  I don’t mean his heroic battles, though he’s often portrayed as very over-powered.  I’m talking about the rest of his life.  Superman/Clark Kent had a pretty idyllic life growing up in Smallville, and he doesn’t have any major problems with his life as a top reporter fort he Daily Planet.  He’s even got a great girl that he knows is in love with him (or married to him depending on the continuity you’re reading).  Characters that capture the attention of fans tend to have a more complex life than that.  It doesn’t have to do with fancy powers and great abilities, at least not to me.  I’ve been thinking about my favorite characters in fiction and I realized they all have some rather major hardships in their lives, which have me rooting for them.

Take another comic-book hero: Spider-Man.  Peter Parker is an orphan, raised by his Uncle and Aunt.  He’s very smart, but his brains get him picked on by his classmates, and he’s unable to relate to them socially.  For example, asking a girl to go to a science exhibition with him.  He’s haunted by his unwillingness initially to be responsible with his powers.  He struggles financially to keep himself and his Aunt taken care of.  He’s not lucky in love, and has had romances end tragically.  When Spider-Man accomplishes something, it’s very easy to be happy for him.  And his struggles connect with the struggles anyone has had in their own lives.

Here’s an example from books: Harry Potter.  Harry is in many ways fortunate.  He’s wealthy, he has athletic talent, and he’s even famous among the wizarding world.  However, Harry lacks something more important than these things, because he was raised in a loveless household by his uncaring Uncle and Aunt.  Harry finds happiness and love in the wizarding world not because be learns all kinds of neat magic and flies on brooms and fights evil wizards, but because he finally finds friends and people who truly care for him.  My enjoyment in the Harry Potter books came as much from Harry’s journey interacting with other characters at his school as from his quest to finally defeat the evil Voldemort for good.  And I was really really rooting hard for Harry to succeed and be happy!

My favorite movie is Star Wars.  Great action and awesome special effects do a lot to make this one of the most popular movies ever.  But if you take a look at Luke Skywalker’s life, there are a lot of reasons why fans are interested in his journey.  He’s an orphan (that seems to be a recurring theme when creating sympathetic characters, huh?) who knows little about his past.  He’s stuck on his Uncle’s farm on Tatooine after his friends have all left the planet.  He even loses his Uncle and Aunt.  Yet he’s a good kid and he’s willing to work hard to do something important with his life.  He’s got really neat powers, like Superman, but he also struggles with life and death and when he wins, you really feel happy for him!

As a final genre, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rose Miller from the webseries Out With Dad.  No super-powers, but she is very smart and despite the tragedy of her mother’s death, she has a great home life.  But she has a lot of obstacles to overcome in her life as she struggles with how to handle her sexuality.  She’s an easy character to care about.

I know there are stories where the main character is not very sympathetic.  Some are good stories.  However, my favorite works of fiction are always going to involve some character I care about, and want to succeed.  Not someone so flawed as to be unlikable.  I want someone to root for!

So, I wonder how I’ve done creating characters that are sympathetic.  You can check out my webcomic, Mutant Elf, to judge for yourself!

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