I was recently reading last year's Best New Writing (or Best Young Writing, or Best American Writing they all run together after a while), and discovered with some shock the exceeding sadness of the first story. It was about an older man, his self-absorbed lesbian daughter, and their cancerous old dog. I have long admired a touch of sadness in a story for its ability to draw sympathy from a reader, but this was a heavy handed approach. The pervasiveness of the gloominess in the story, never letting up to give the characters a moment of happiness, really threw off the tension curve. At some point characters for whom bad things continuously happen with no hope of any reprieve are simply pathetic, not sympathetic.
It is something to check your own writing for: at what point do your characters lose their sympathy factor?
Someone recently asked me to "take my characters to dinner" apart from being ridiculous advice (many of my characters are ghosts, veterans obsessed with past wars, children, the collective consciousness of readers, an extremely shy teenage girl, etc.), it made me wonder, "Would you want to take your characters to dinner?"
Or would you find yourself about half-way through your salad course giving serious thought to hanging yourself with a nearby curtain tie so you don't have to hear the self-pitying lout who won't shut up about his sick dog and attempts to win the affection of a self-obsessed lesbian daughter talk anymore?
What characters would make you want to stay through desert?