Character Sympathy (+10 more rankings!)

Character Sympathy

I’ve discovered that how I sympathize with a lead character heavily influences how much I like a book.

Its not enough to simply to have empathy and understand a character’s reasoning. As I read a book, there is a part of me that wants to be a participant of the story.

*sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. (the internet)

I value humility and intellectualism. I’m averse is to cockiness and unnecessary heroics. I appreciate complex, flawed characters. I’m dislike infallible characters that dominate their opponents with ease.

This is why I could not stand Ready Player One (and a lesser extent, Name of the Wind). This is why I enjoyed the Dispossessed (and why I loved The Witcher III).

Of course, there are instances where there main character is insufficient, but supplemented by a strong supporting cast. “Kafka on the Shore” has a really amazing supporting cast that helps to promote the coming of age story of Kafka. The zombie book “Girl with all the Gifts” wasn’t really about the main zombie girl Melanie as much as the surviving humans around her.

Ranking 10 Recent Reads

In general, but also from the perspective of protagonist sympathy. These are pretty much all scifi/fantasy, to some extent (if you include zombie books and murakami’s shenanigans

Rank (rating) Book, Author Protagonist Protaganist Description
1 5*The Dispossessed, Le Guin adult scientist adult
2 5* The Fifth Season, Jemisin 1 kid, 1 teen, 1 adult nice kid, sassy teen, seasoned adult
3 5*Old Man’s War, Scalzi adult old grandpa
4 5*Kafka on the Shore, Murakami teen weirdly introspective teen
5 5*Dune, Herbert teen coming of age
6 5* Foundation, Asimov adult pretty normal people, some ‘heroes’
7 4* The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey kid crazy brilliant kid
8 4* The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams adult & alien sassy AF
9 4* Foundation and Empire, Asimov adults pretty normal people
10 2* Ready Player One, Cline teen smart but cocky

1. The Dispossessed, Le Guin (1974)

The Dispossessed is, more or less, a man’s struggles and realizations in comparing a poor but well-run Communist/Anarchist society with an ultra-efficient but highly political capitalist world. From a character perspective, Shevek is a genius physicist that is generally stable but suspect to his emotions.

This is top because I know Shevek story will stay strong in my mind as the books below get reduced to faint abstractions over the years.

The full review is in a previous post!

2. The Fifth Season, Jemisin (2015)

“And since stonelore would be harder to remember if it was full of phrases like ‘watch for the inverted fulcrum of a conical torus,’ we get centers and circles. Accuracy is sacrificed in the name of better poetry.”

I love this because it is the essence of Jemisin’s writing. She trades obscure vocabulary for colloquial thoughts and dialogue – The Fifth Season reads so smoothly that it was over before I knew it.

The characters follow common tropes. The innocent, curious young girl. The prideful, sassy teenager. The seasoned adult. I believe these tropes actually enhanced my experience.

The Fifth Season isn’t about characters taking weird, dark or unpredictable turns – rather it’s how they adapt to a world constantly changing, a world constantly on edge of collapse, and a world where you are the enemy despite how much you want to help. Decisions are generally rational, but people get carried away by emotions. These tropes make people realistic, believable, and their actions easy to emphasize with.

3. Old Man’s War, Scalzi (2005)

Old Man’s War is a mix of hilarity, somberness, and lots of guns. It gets really funky really fast, and once you adjust you realize there’s quite a bit of space philosophy to go with fighting aliens across the universe.

The protagonist is generally jaded, sarcastic and fun to introspect alongside. That being said, I think the character himself wasn’t all that memorable – the excitement of the world & story is what carries Old Man’s War to #3.

4. Kafka By the Shore, Murakami (2006)

Oh man, what a weird book. It starts unbelievably slowly, but Kafka’s story gradually becomes more complex, interesting as it gets weirder and weirder. The novel concludes with a powerful, resounding and emotional finish.

Kafka himself is intelligent, introspective, and conflicted. As a 15 year old dumped into an mystical world, he makes mistakes, suffers, learns, and powers through a cruel Oedipal prophecy.

Also Oshima (the librarian) was an absolute badass. And these fan illustrations are amazing.

5. Dune, Herbert (1965)

Dune was a great story, fun plot, and has all the shenanigans of the modern hero story (loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice, twists, yadayadaya). All around a very solid book but mostly if you appreciate it as the first of its’ kind, as a scifi/fantasy epic. It’s seen to have heavily inspired Star Wars, alongside many other story based science fiction stories.

6. Foundation, Asimov (1951)

This Asimov is one of the original scifi books (written in the 1940s). It is a brilliant story of prediction (psychohistory, which is basically macroeconomics on steroids), political heroism and the world as it could be. It is a sophisticated space equivalent of the Fall of Rome.

Foundation focuses on political relationships and world building, and less on realism/character development. The heroes are brilliant, fallible, but not necessarily complex or developing characters.

7. The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey (2015)

Brilliant storytelling and a cute first person view of a young intellectual zombie 10 y/o girl. I’m not a huge zombie reader, but this really showed how love can play a huge part in people when their brains are getting eaten. It wasn’t extremely special (hence a 4*) but no real knocks and overall a solid book

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams (1979)

This is a truly revolutionary and ridiculous book in the genre of sci-fi, and I am all the better for having read it. That being said, I can’t say it was a either a mind-altering or extremely sophisticated experience. Now I think about it, it’s pretty much the Rick and Morty of the 70s. Solid stuff.

9. Foundation and Empire, Asimov (1952)

The second book of the Foundation Trilogy is a show of inevitability of sociopolitical nature of humanity under certain conditions. It had a solid story and a few great twists, but the characters were mostly static and predictable. I think its worth a read to understand Asimov but there are better books out there.

10. Ready Player One, Cline (2011)

This is probably the single worst book I’ve read in the past 10 years.

On the plus side, it was a great page-turner. Cline crams every possible gaming and pop reference from the 80s in a action-packed “adventure”. Unfortunately, the main character is a cocky teenager that somehow just happens to be the best at every game in the world. There are no real twists, no real complexity in any of the characters (both good and bad), and no real redeeming features.

I was hoping for a book that bathes in its own absurdity. As I hoped my way for two thirds of the book, it became clearer that it was simply oblivious at its own ridiculousness.

The only consolation here is that Andy Wier (author of The Martian) did a spin-off short story called Lacero that is actually good. Give it a read!


Thanks for reading, and let me know what you are reading!