In the Characters session on the Story Elements course, we create characters with a bunch of prompts and then check the emerging characters against three criteria. Is the character complex? Real people are contradictory, have mixed feelings, think one thing and do another, behave out-of-character, and have different sides to them. While we're inventing characters, we don't want to make them too smoothed-over and consistent, or they'll end up one-dimensional. Is the character interesting? Most engaging characters have something unusual, interesting, or larger than life about them. Even the most humdrum person is unique and distinctive to themselves. The most contentious question, though, is this: is the character sympathetic? That question comes with a massive caveat.
Whether characters should be sympathetic has always been a matter for argument. Jane Austen wrote about Emma, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," and expected that the book's popularity would suffer as a result. Women writers and characters seem to get more flak, for not being likeable: Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, was told by her interviewer, "I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?" and Messud rightly flipped:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’Somewhere along the line, sympathetic and likeable have become confused and we need to separate them out again. Sympathetic means someone you can sympathise with, not the French sympathique (which does mean likeable). In the seed packet, I offer this gloss: "Can we sympathise with your character? What would make us like them more or understand them more? They don’t have to be 'nice', but we want to be able to get behind their eyes." That distinction - like them more or understand them more - is important. One student offered the alternative she uses: Can I respect this character? That question works for the strengths and weaknesses of the character she's currently creating, but wouldn't apply to every character. Even returning to the original meaning of a "sympathetic" character doesn't mean every main character should be sympathetic.
A story's personal stakes depend on how much we can sympathise with the character, in this sense. Certain genres rely especially heavily on personal stakes: literary fiction (we'll argue about whether that's a genre another time) and romantic fiction especially. The character's desires and aims are what drive these stories; the degree to which we care about their desires and aims is the degree to which we sympathise with them.
Should your characters be sympathetic? I don't believe that there is an answer; it's not binary. I don't believe in rules, in writing: I believe in principles. I compare it to artists learning about art. Artists don't have to work out the principles of perspective from scratch for themselves; they're allowed to learn them. But you can learn how perspective works and then be Picasso. You don't have to obey principles, only understand how they work. Having a "sympathetic character" is a principle, not a rule: we find out what the principle is, we learn the effects on a story of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters, and then we decide what we want to do, understanding what the effects will be.