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I FELT SO SORRY for Thomas I was tearing, as his father said ‘I don’t even know if he’s mine,’ as his deaf-mute girlfriend was killed by a Lincoln Continental, and as his mother sung to Ferlin Husky between the coughs that would kill her too.

And yet I had invented Thomas and all of his miseries. He was the main character in a work of short fiction entitled Vinegar Fingers.

Since most of my creative writing has been non-fiction, I hadn’t encountered character sympathy, or fictional character sympathy, before. And as my chest tightened for Thomas, I wondered, will my pity help?

Maybe the writer needs to feel, see, and care about a character so the reader will too.

As a journalist, I try to do interviews in person if at all possible because to meet and see someone is to know them, a little, at least. I can describe what they were doing with their hands, what words make them smile, how crumbs hung from their tie. I can observe them in their environment, around the people and places they care about. Having these details helps me bring their story to life.

So, if I can care about a fictional character in a seemingly similar way, will he be all the more alive, too? I think so.

How did I get to the point of caring about Thomas? Was it because I saw him as vividly in my mind as I would a real person? Was it because I knew enough about his past to feel sympathy? Probably.

Writing instructors often say the key to a compelling story is sketching a character the reader cares about. They need to be human: have problems, hang-ups and regrets. But they also need to be likeable. They have a quirky laugh, say ‘please’ a lot, or carry a photo of their grandmother. Readers need to care about (know about, not like) a character to feel sympathy and the urge to find out what happens to her.

Maybe the writer needs to feel, see, and care about a character first so the reader will too.

How have you gotten yourself wrapped around a character? What was that sort of sympathy like?

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