Let’s talk about likable and sympathetic characters.

I just finished reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire so I’ll draw some examples from that well-known book.

Likable: The quality of being liked, the sort of person you’d want to invite over or have a friendly drink with.

Example: Cedric Diggory (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) — Cedric is nice. He’s popular. He believes in fair play, sharing, and good sportsmanship. That likable quality is debatable. Some readers may find him likable, others may find him annoying.

Sympathetic: A character that you feel for, you want to see how their story plays out. You do not necessarily want to spend quality time with this character (if that were possible) or even share the same general vicinity. Or you could. Key word is “necessarily.” The sympathetic character tends to have a lot of problems or at least one big daunting problem. They have what they need to sole their problem(s) if they can just realize what they need to do.

Example: Harry Potter. He’s got plenty of allies and decent wizarding skills. Working against him are his celebrity and a conspiracy intent on raising his greatest enemy from the dead (which incidentally are Harry’s *stakes*–what he has to lose if he fails).

He’s not that likable sometimes. Let’s put that out of the way.

But he’s got loads of sympathetic qualities. The reader wants to see things to the end, see if he wins the tournament he’s competing in. And of course what about the Dark Lord Voldemort?

Okay, you get the picture. A sympathetic character has a compelling character arc–that is, what happens to them and how they overcome their problems, how they grow as made-up people.


So what can you do as a writer to make your protagonist more sympathetic? Here are a few quick and messy tips.

  1. Companions, kids, and furry friends: A character is more sympathetic if they have some other characters (including animals) who care for and depend on them. Probably a good reason for all those wizards’ familiars hanging around all the time. That other Harry of contemporary fantasy–Harry Dresden–has Mouse, a Tibetan temple dog, and a cranky house cat, in addition to his human and mostly human comrades in arms in the fight against evil and stupidity. Harry Potter has Ron and Hermione as well as Hedwig, his loyal owl. And of course children represent hope and the future, as well as the possibility to relaunch your fantasy series later (as Terry Brooks has done a few times) with a new generation of characters.
  2. Okay this is going to sound a bit crass maybe, but make ’em poor. Rich, privileged characters are inherently less sympathetic. We’re going more for Spider-Man than Batman (or Iron Man) here. A protagonist who has to work for a living and doesn’t have a family fortune to fall back on (especially if money becomes an issue). Like other aspects of characterization, if it doesn’t really affect the story, don’t bother.
  3. Which brings us to phobias and addictions. Chemical addition (to caffeine, alcohol, narcotics) is a good place to build sympathy, as well as dig up some further possibilities for plotting. A coffee-drinker can spend a whole chapter or more trying to find their morning fix while other stuff is going on. They’re preoccupied and miss important things that are happening around them. You could dig in with other vices, too. Preoccupations, infatuations, prejudices. But *only* if it really impacts the story. Mentioning a fear of heights but never really putting your protagonist on a building ledge or very high ladder doing something important is just a throw-away line.

So there we go. Focus on making your characters sympathetic, not likable. Compelling, but not necessarily nice. Give them other responsibilities and obligations besides fixing the major problem in the story and consider some shortcomings that actually help build the plot and deepen character development.