This is inspired by an idea shared on the Writing Excuses podcast. They did a wonderful series of shows about how to make a character more sympathetic without making them inhumanely good/evil. Check out the first of the shows.
Conflict can be “Oh no! The world’s about to end! How do we stop it/escape?” or it can be “Oh no, my mother-in-law’s coming for the holidays and she’s insufferable”, or it can be “I need to do something I really don’t want to do because…”
One way to create sympathy for a main character and keep the conflict in the story, is to use the character’s abilities (or lack thereof) to show how they are a good fit, a mediocre fit, or a terrible fit for the challenges they face.
Resolve the Conflict In Your Story Based on Your Main Character’s Abilities
- Your character can be a good fit for the challenges but hindered by circumstances (Superman and his need to keep his true identity hidden).
- Your character can be a poor fit for the challenge he faces, but willing to give it a shot (Bilbo, in The Hobbit. He is certainly not the Burglar Gandalf claims him to be, but he gives his best to the adventure, in spite of being a poor fit for the life).
- Your character is a reluctant hero. He has the skills and the opportunity, but doesn’t particularly want to be a hero (Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element — in fact, Bruce Willis in a lot of roles!). What inner conflict is stopping him from helping resolve the outer conflict? What will change his/her mind?
- What if your character is really, really good at one thing and is suddenly thrust into a world/situation where all their skills mean nothing…at first? Can they adapt? Can they find a way to use their skills? Can they partner up with someone whose skills compliment their own? Can you find a way to let them use their existing skills in the end, so they don’t seem like a pathetic character?
- What if your character is the sweetheart who glues together an otherwise incompatible team of highly skilled, irascible experts?
- Make us root for or against a character by showing how they employ their talents (or fail to).