Do you read for pleasure? Of course, we writers are also
students of books after we take on the study of the craft. I’m reading a book “for
pleasure” right now that isn’t working for me. Why? Because I can’t relate with
the heroine, which means I don’t sympathize with her. Why is it important to
relate to and sympathize with a main character? Because character sympathy helps
keep readers hooked and wanting to finish the story. It also provides an
emotional connection that the writer can exploit to help bring about profound
change in the reader. The best fiction is life-changing. And the way to impact
lives is to elicit an emotional response. And the key to doing that is to write
relatable, sympathetic characters. 
So, what makes us relate to and sympathize with the
characters in a story?
Universal themes.
These are themes that stretch around the world. Things like a mother’s or
father’s love. The love of family. The instinct to protect the helpless.
Compassion for children. The desire to help those who are hurting. Hatred of
violence and evil. The need for forgiveness and acceptance. The list is nearly
endless, and granted, some of these themes are more universal than others.
(Villains don’t hate evil, for example.) If your MC (main character) champions a
cause that touches on a universal theme, readers are more likely to defend and support your main character. 
Relatable emotions.
Even if your MC champions a worthy cause, s/he may still not be “likable.”
Character arc demands that the character start out with some rough edges that
are hopefully smoothed out a bit by the end of the story. So, making your MC
relatable at the beginning means giving her a weakness or heartache or wound
that readers will relate to. Maybe she’s crabby because her grown children
never call or visit. Maybe he believes the world is out to get him. Show us
their inner workings,their secret heartaches. Help us see behind the gruff exterior. If
you give us a relatable reason for their behavior, we’ll probably advocate for them, even if
they’re irritable. (All while we await change.) The key is maintain balance. If your MC dislikes another person, give us a corresponding reason of equal weight. If she hates someone else, the reason must be weightier and may be harder to justify. Be proportionate. Remember: readers are logical and emotional. So we must balance those two too.
A Worthy Cause. I’ve
hinted at this above under themes. Readers will forgive an MC’s rough
relational methods if they believe in the MC’s cause. In other words, show us
the MC’s nobility. Sure, she’s as snarky as piranha, but she fights for the
rights of children. Readers will overlook the sharpness, even believing that
trait might help the MC’s cause. Ironically, readers begin to admire those
traits as the MC sees victory. Be careful though. Don’t let harsh, rude
characters always win without ever changing. Readers won’t put up with rudeness
forever. They also like that universal theme of redemption and change. 
What are some other ways you can make readers sympathize
with your MC? How do you make your hero or heroine likable, right from the
start?

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