Building reader sympathy is a careful balancing act. Though protagonists must struggle in order to bring meaning to the book, there is a fine line between suffering and helplessness. Protagonists are the reader’s proxy, and as such, we want them to represent the virtues we admire in others and wish in ourselves. Strength, will, and grace under pressure are as important as relatability. Miles Vorkosigan, one of the protagonists from the science fiction of Lois McMaster Bujold, is one of the best examples I can point to.
Miles’ struggles start in his mother's womb when political enemies of his father attempt to kill both mother and child with a poisonous gas. The resulting damage retards Miles’ physical development, leaving him with brittle bones and short stature. The Barrayan admiration for military accomplishment coupled with their strong prejudice against perceived mutations generate in severe societal pressures that make Miles’ childhood and young adult life incredibly difficult. His culture has conditioned him to want to be a soldier, but his physical limitations make that goal seem impossible.
Bujold has structured Mile’s limitations so that they are not only a source of conflict and strife, but they also compete with his personal goals. This gives them extra meaning and is a source of tension and obstacles for him to overcome. It is not enough that the trauma exists in a backstory. To be meaningful, the limitation must continue to impair the protagonist’s life. They must not be so overwhelming that the protagonist gives up either. Conflict is the heart of a story, so hope must still exist. Therefore, trials and limitations must be balanced by gifts and talents.
Bujold balances Miles’ physical and societal hardship with extraordinary charisma, intelligence and will. These gifts allow Miles to overcome challenges that would overwhelm any of his Barrayan compatriots and be truly heroic. In the Warrior’s Apprentice, for example, Miles is able to bluff his way into the command of a mercenary force. Though Miles Neismith covert identity, Miles achieves the military glory and significance he yearned for. The essential lesson here is that Miles’ gifts are equal but opposite to his trials, allowing him to face his demons and accomplish his goals.
Reader sympathy is a powerful force, and will often make or break the story. This is especially true for protagonists, and one mistake I often see in young writers is that they do not think through the consequences or scale of the trauma in a character’s backstory. Exceptional challenges must be balanced by extraordinary gifts. We do not sympathize the defeated, but rather, we empathize with those who have struggled and overcome obstacles. Ultimately, the struggles of a beloved protagonist is a source of hope, as well as entertainment, for the reader. We all face challenges in our everyday life but need to know that those struggles will be rewarded.Tags: Sequence 04: On the Shoulders of Giants