Key Conditions for Reader Suspense:
Part 5 – Character troubles

by John D. Brown

JohnThe following is part of a continuing series. If you wish to start at the beginning, head to It’s All About The Reader.

In previous posts we discussed the idea that readers don’t want your characters to be happy. They want them to hunted, stressed, threatened, freaked, and nigh unto some horrible fate for 90% of the novel. At that point, after all that trouble, readers want the characters to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat, exhale a big sigh of relief, and enjoy a Slurpee . . . until the next book in the series.

All through the big worry, readers don’t want to know what WILL happen. They want to know or suspect what MIGHT happen and HOPE and FEAR about those possibilities. And then they want a cathartic resolution of all that hope and fear, all that dramatic tension they have felt.

But our readers won’t hope and fear for just anyone. They will only hope and fear for those characters who evoke sympathy and interest. And so the second set of Pareto factors focus on the things, the conditions, that do this. There are three of these factors. In this post, I’ll discuss the first.

Sympathy starts when we see someone in trouble. That’s not the only thing that’s required. Some people who are in terrible trouble only evoke pity or even antipathy. So there’s more to this than trouble, but trouble is where sympathy starts. So what kind of trouble are we talking about? I like the categories James Scott Bell uses. We feel sympathy for people who are:

• In jeopardy or experiencing hardship
• Are underdogs
• Are vulnerable

When someone is in jeopardy, it means some significant aspect of their happiness is being threatened. Hum, sounds suspiciously like the first type of story problem I discussed earlier, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. We have sympathy for people who are being threatened with death, slavery, drudgery, etc. We’re just wired for it. Likewise, we feel for someone experiencing a hardship. And a hardship is simply someone having to deal with a lack, the second type of problem we discussed. So we begin to evoke reader sympathy by just giving our characters significant problems to deal with.

And you can pile the problems on so that not only does our hero have to deal with the central problem of the story, but maybe he’s also broke and has nothing but one box of macaroni and cheese in the cupboard, or his car just got repossessed, or he’s just been dumped by his girlfriend, or he and his daughter are estranged because his ex-wife is pouring poison in her ear, or he breaks his arm, or he works in an awful job.

Do you remember Peter Parker in Spiderman 2? He gets fired from his pizza job, has no money, is losing his girl. Lots of hardship. And lots of reader sympathy.

But giving characters problems is not quite enough. Because if you recall, the readers want to fear for our characters. Nobody fears too much for someone else if we know that they can easily resolve any threat or hardship that comes their way. And so we need to stack the odds against the character. They need to be underdogs.

This means that the opposition starts off two steps ahead. It means they have more power, more resources, or more information. This is why strong antagonists make strong stories—they help the reader to fear for our protagonists.

Who worries about a Superman who is a hunk of burning love? Nobody. Unless he’s actually Clark Kent in other matters and stands to lose something like Lois. Or, when he is Superman, someone hangs kryptonite around his neck and turns him into a dweeb.

In this same vein, our characters need to be vulnerable. This means they can be squashed at any time. They can be shot, killed, ruined. Until the very end, the reader must know the characters can lose big. In a previous post, I said that problems have to be hard to solve, otherwise readers don’t worry. The things that make problems hard to solve are character limitations, ongoing and increasing troubles, conflicts, and surprises. All of those factors make characters vulnerable as well.

So, threaten your characters will all sorts of things, give them hardships, make them vulnerable underdogs, and we’ll feel sympathy for them.

Or will we?

There are some characters with problems who we don’t want to root for. Instead, we hope they fail. Villains, for example, have problems, but we root against them with vigor. In our minds, these folks deserve to fail. So you can’t rely on trouble alone. There’s another quality that your characters must evoke if we’re going to hope and fear for them.

That other quality is deservingness. And it’s the topic of the next post.



John Brown is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Servant of a Dark God, the first book in his epic fantasy series, was published by Tor Books and is now out in paperback. Forthcoming novels in the series include Curse of a Dark God and Dark God’s Glory. He currently lives with his wife and four daughters in the hinterlands of Utah where one encounters much fresh air, many good-hearted ranchers, and an occasional wolf.

For a list of all of the posts in this series thus far, click on the “John D. Brown” tag.