1. Rosetta Stoned
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    Rosetta Stoned Member

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    Invoking Sympathy

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Rosetta Stoned, Jul 8, 2009.

    This has nothing to do with my previous thread... sorry if it seems similar.

    I have a story involving a society that is founded on a traditional caste system, where the lowest group is basically treated like dirt. Whenever I try to depict the unattractive aspects of their lives, however, I always feel like I am going too far to make the reader feel sorry for them, even when I'm not attempting to (if that makes sense).

    How do you invoke sympathy for characters without throwing them a pity party?
     
  2. cybrxkhan
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    cybrxkhan Contributing Member

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    One thing that you could try is to figure out a way for the reader to relate to the characters. I found that when I read stories where I could say, "Hey, I know how you are feeling, Character A, I felt something like that before!" it really makes me more sympathetic to them. It kind of works for the reader, because then they know that they're not the only person in the world of have suffered something.

    As a very quick and bad example, in your case, maybe one of your characters of the lower caste could really really want something that only the upper castes could have, like, say, a tasty loaf of meat. Problem is, he's lower caste, so he'll have to waste his life eatting gruel. The character could even have a taste of meat one time, and then they would brag about it to the other lower castes for months on end. Ideally, the reader would then sympathize with the character, because we all have wanted something really bad, and, well, I think you get the point.

    The reader should be able to relate to the character and say, "Hey, I know how you feel because I experienced something like that too". That's basically my point here.
     
  3. Anders Backlund
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    Anders Backlund Contributing Member

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    As I see it, there's a difference between "being treated like dirt" and "suffering." A person who is treated like dirt can still have some sources of joy, a place or state of mind to feel secure in, dreams, or even a sense of pride. Especially if he or she is part of a group of other outcasts, since being mistreated together can create strong feelings of solidarity.

    I think we feel pity towards those who are miserable, but sympathy towards those who deal with misery in a way we find relatable, or even admirable.
     
  4. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    It depends on how you write about them. If you focus on how they're badly treated, how poor they are, how everyone hates them, then obviously people are going to feel bad for them, that's how we're wired these days. So when you're depicting those aspects of their lives, try not to emotionalise it, just tell it straight.
     
  5. Sabih Omar
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    Sabih Omar Member

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    In that case I would make the characters desensitized to the segregation. Well in a stratified society people take it to be granted, if you are not writing about an uprise/revolution.
     
  6. Smithy
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    Smithy Senior Member

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    I agree with Sabih, if I've got what he's saying right. My opinion is that you garner a lot more sympathy for a character when you don't seem to be appealing for it.

    Example 1. a character who hates his crappy life at the bottom of the rubbish heap, and whines about it. The reader may feel sorry for him at first, but eventually they will expect him to shut up and do something to change his circumstances.

    Example 2. a character who is unhappy with his life, but bears up for lack of anything else to do. This is better as far as sympathy goes, but in the end readers will still expect him to be proactive in altering his life.

    Example 3. A character who not only accepts his lot in life, but beleives fervently that he deserves this. So while you describe scenes of unimaginable poverty and degradation, he will be thinking about how this is the life he deserves for whatever reason. This should not only have everyone symapthetic to this character, but also outraged at whoever made him beleive this is all he is worth, and removes the problem of changing his life because as far as character is concerned he doesn't see a reason to change. That is why I think this is the best option.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    First off, I think you mean "evoke", not "invoke."

    I would show the strength of the lowest, through family unity, honorable behavior, etc. Emphasize the things that cannot be taken away by poverty.
     
  8. Smithy
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    Smithy Senior Member

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    Especially since, although the concept of 'rustic peasant morality superior to licentious corruption' is an old one, it has recently fallen out of favour to such an extent that it will seem new to many audiences.
     
  9. Kas
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    Kas Contributing Member

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    Write with the attitude that things are right and natural the way they are.

    I imagine that they've been living in a caste society for a long time. They're all accustomed to it. Everyone knows their proper place, aside from perhaps the odd few radicals who desire/envision a different way. The vast majority of people, from the lowest of the low to the greatest nobility, (or whatever equivalent) will be brainwashed to believe that this is the only way to live, and each person is getting their just due. Whatever their station - that is their lot in life.

    I find that it's actually more distressing if the mistreated people believe that they're being treated appropriately. Abused peons aren't necessarily a revolution waiting to happen. They're unlikely to understand the concept of abuse in any way like you do, and that's the real tragedy.

    If you write with the attitude of one who lives in this society, the suffering you describe will be incidental. Mention it the same way you would the weather or clothing. . . a mere fact, a tidbit of neutral information that might be relevant to the scene/story, but not one worth focusing on. The reader will focus on it; you don't have to. The less attention you give them - the more you just take it in stride as a matter of course - the more meaningful and disturbing it will be.

    This way you get the point accross loud and clear, but without beating the reader senseless with the drama stick. The drama stick has the opposite effect on me.

    If I were your reader, that's your best bet to evoke sympathy.
     
  10. odicepaul
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    odicepaul New Member

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    envoking emotion

    I am not an experienced writer and new to this site. I am working on a novel because I have some nutzy idea that it is a productive endeavor for an unemployed artistically inclined person and I feel the need to tell a story that is important to me. I am very happy with this forum so far and your postings in particular are relative to my story. I wanted to post here in hopes of keeping this stream flowing.
    In regards to the lower caste I am wondering how to recognize “emotionalizing” in my prose?
    :rolleyes:
     
  11. Seppuku
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    Seppuku Member

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    It's a matter of where you're focusing your writing. What you're writing to stand out is what the reader's going to notice the most - perhaps the suffering should be a part of the subtext so that the focus is actually what the characters are doing and how they're dealing with it. So you don't need to tell the reader that they're actually suffering, but only show it to them at certain moments.

    The way I'd think of it is to look at holocaust stories; there are some stories where you really see the strength of the people coping, you will see sadness, you will have sympathy but what you're thinking throughout is, "good on you". I'm thinking of 'Defiance' at the moment (the WW2 film with Daniel Craig) Whilst it does have its sympathetic moments, you don't see so much as the cruelty, but their survival, what they're doing about their disposition. We can tell there's suffering by the fact they're running away from it - we see Germans trying to kill them and you can see it on the people's faces and characters die in the film, so we see these bits of sadness, thus we have sympathy, but that's not its focus and thus you don't have a 'pity party' - you think, "good on you".
     
  12. Cheeno
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    Cheeno Contributing Member

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    You evoke sympathy and empathy by portraying a character's vulnerability as they attempt to cope with adversity. Struggling to survive, against the odds, and striving to pull themselves out of the crap everytime, will evoke a solid feeling of empathy in your audience.
     
  13. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    If you want to avoid emotionalising (in either a positive or negative way) then you have to pay very close attention to the language you use. People will try to find heroes and villains and try to empathise with the characters you show them, even if you don't want them to, that's just how people work. So if you want to give a distanced, unemotional then you do it with your language. Offer nothing of their emotions, don't allow the reader to relate to them, don't use words that have strong connotations, don't focus strongly on the hardships or anything.
    On the other hand, if you want to evoke sympathy, you just do the opposite...talk about the character's shattered dreams, their daily struggle to live, all that jazz, in really emotional language.
    I think the best example I can think of of writing that avoids emotionalising its content is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis....he depicts very graphic sexual violence from a 1st person viewpoint, but (arguably) separates the narrator from the character in order to deliver a totally amoral, unemotional account of the violence.
     
  14. Rosetta Stoned
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    Rosetta Stoned Member

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    See, I'm worried that they will do the opposite. Maybe I'm making false assumptions based on my own behavior, because I am a very apathetic reader, but I always thought that you had to work to convince people that your characters are worthwhile. I keep thinking that they'll just glance over the sensational stuff and say, "I couldn't care less."
     
  15. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I guess my statement assumes your characters are competently created. If your character can be related to (ie. is a realistic, consistent personality) then they will be.
    But studies have shown that the majority of people try to read agency and humanity into situations and narratives even when none is evident explicitly. The study that comes to mind involved scientists/researchers showing people a video of two triangles and a circle moving about on the screen with no sound, no words, no other signifiers of story or context. The majority of the people read some kind of narrative into what they were seeing even though there was nothing to suggest one besides the existence of moving shapes.
    So, we are always looking for someone to relate to, someone to care about, and are easily manipulated in how we feel about characters like this.
     

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