A sympathetic character is, as the name implies, one towards whom we feel sympathy, and this is often a defining characteristic when it comes to adding depth and relatability to characters we wouldn't otherwise be so keen to get on board with. Of course, protagonists and heroes are generally always sympathetic, but that comes with the territory, and they wouldn't make very good heroes if we didn't empathise with them in this way. But when it comes to other supporting characters -- or sometimes even antagonists and villains -- a little bit of sympathy can go a long way.
To but it as concisely as I can, any character you tend to look at and think "Oh, so that's why they're like that", is probably a good example of sympathy being used to add depth in a way that makes us feel a few feelings. Gollum from Lord of the Rings is an excellent case in point when it comes to sympathetic characters. He's not a particularly nice creature, granted, but he isn't a thoroughly evil and malevolent one either. We come to understand that he is the way he is because the ring has poisoned him and made him reliant on it, much like a junkie doing whatever he can to find his next fix. We're sympathetic to the wretchedness of him, and the small part of Gollum that still wants to do the right thing buried deep beneath the surface.
This is generally what the sympathetic character is intended to accomplish a lot of the time; making us empathise with and relate to an otherwise unlikeable or immoral individual. It's especially useful when telling a story focusing on a more villainous character as the protagonist. We're much more willing to get on board with a bad guy as the hero if we understand the reasons behind why they're a bad guy.
Of course, as usual, I'm largely talking about conventional storytelling here. You can still very much write a thoroughly nasty and irredeemable jerkbag as your hero and make a good book out of it, but a character like that isn't going to tick all of the right protagonist boxes in the traditional sense.
So how do you make a character sympathetic? Well in the shower this morning I came up with a couple of pretty standard tropes you tend to see used a lot for accomplishing it. The most oft-used is the weepy backstory reveal. If you create a character who acts like a jerk because of bad things that happened to them in the past, then people will generally feel sorry for them rather than being instantly judgemental. Gollum, Severus Snape, and even General Woundwort, who I talked about last week, are all prime examples of this. We have a tendency to excuse others of their shortcomings (to greater or lesser degrees) if they've had a rough time of things themselves.
The second, and rather more interesting, in my mind, method of creating sympathy towards a character is to make them the lesser of two evils. This kind of characterisation suits antiheroes particularly well. In the original Star Wars, Han Solo is hardly a paragon of innocence and virtue like Luke Skywalker, yet he is a far cry from the villainy of Darth Vader. In a world of corrupt cops, the officer who only accepts bribes sometimes becomes the good guy, because he elevates himself above those around him by comparison. I like this kind of characterisation because it doesn't make excuses for a character's behaviour. It allows writers to explore otherwise unpleasant or unlikeable individuals in a context where the reader is forced to latch on to them in the absence of anyone more suitable.
Those are just some of my thoughts on sympathetic characters and how we create them for today. I've been pretty slow on the writing front this week due to a yucky bout of illness and other ailments (I'm getting over it now!), but Wild Instincts #9 is still coming along. More releases and blog posts to come now that I'm clawing my way back into the saddle!