What Does It Really Mean When People Say Your Character is Unsympathetic?
by Christina Baker Kline
In this essay, Christina Baker Kline decodes one of the most dreaded critiques a writer can receive. She'll appear with Amor Towles (Rules of Civility, A Gentleman in Moscow) on April 5th to discuss her new book Christina's World. RSVP here.
Ever since I started noticing the typos in Nancy Drew books, I’ve loved to edit. In high school I convinced my mother, an overworked English professor, to let me do an anonymous first read of her students’ papers. (I marked them in pencil and she’d follow up in pen.) In grad school I printed up business cards and edited everything from Guggenheim applications to resignation letters to doctoral theses. In the years since, while writing novels, I’ve supported myself largely as a freelance manuscript editor. I’ve edited hundreds of manuscripts—and learned a great deal about ruthlessly editing my own first (and second and third) drafts in the process.
One of the most vexing problems a manuscript can have—fiction or nonfiction—is a so-called “unsympathetic” main character. Writers hate being told that their central character is unsympathetic. They not-so-secretly believe that “unsympathetic” is code for complicated and multi-faceted; the reader simply can’t handle the dark complexity of their brilliance.
As a writer, I empathize. As an editor, I’ve had to figure out exactly what I mean by “unsympathetic” so I can be as clear as possible in explaining what’s not working.
This, for me, is what it comes down to:
An unsympathetic character is one who remains elusive and unengaging to the reader. It’s not that the character is unlikeable. Unlikeable is fine, and often—as with everything from Lionel Shriver’s mother of a serial killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin to Shakespeare’s Richard III—the entire point.
A character can be sharp-witted, twisted, arrogant, contradictory, vain, narcissistic, boorish, even morally repugnant (think Tony Soprano)—as long as the reader understands the character’s motivations. When readers don’t respond, the problem isn’t the character’s misery or self-absorption or churlishness. (Here I’m thinking of Emma Bovary.) The problem is that the reader can’t see far enough beneath the character’s surface actions to understand the deeper feelings underneath.
The reader needs to grasp what the character is thinking and feeling, however much trouble she may have articulating it to the people around her. We don’t need to like or agree, just to understand. If we don’t know how a character feels about any given event in her life, it’s hard for us to care.
Furthermore, an unsympathetic character remains static. She doesn’t change. There aren’t enough revelations and discoveries about her. In one recent manuscript I edited, the central character is described as beautiful and desirable. She is lusted after and admired. But she seems to have little passion for others; she is self-absorbed, enigmatic, and inscrutable. For this character to bloom she needs to function less as a beautiful, passive cipher and more as an active agent.
Here are two ways to make an unsympathetic character spring to life:
1. Linger in the character’s head. Let us see and understand how she processes what you show her doing.
2. Make the character active. Give her agency. If your character doesn’t have agency—if she is depressed or confined, for example—you will need to create other characters and/or events that serve as catalysts, sparking her to act.
The central character is the reader’s guide, the prism: Everything is colored by her reactions. Ultimately an unsympathetic character at the center of a story is like a metastatic cancer: It infects the entire body. If the central character is unsympathetic the story cannot thrive.
Photo by Karin Diana
Christina Baker Kline is the author of the new novel A Piece of the World (2017), about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina's World. Kline has written five other novels—Orphan Train, The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines—and written or edited five works of nonfiction. Her 2013 novel Orphan Train spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at #1, and was published in 40 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a "One Book, One Read" selection. Her adaptation of Orphan Train for young readers is Orphan Train Girl (2017). She lives near New York City and on the coast of Maine.