Empathy vs. Sympathy-A Writer’s Take

I feel your pain.

In any successful story, it is neccessary to evoke empathy.  Whether we know it or not, most of us read books and watch movies to feel connected to the characters.  Ever wondered why mindless action movies are so boring? hmmmmm….

I think this idea boils down to a very simple goal that an author must accomplish.

Make the reader feel the character.

Normally, the author wants their reader to connect with the protagonist, or other major character, in meaningful ways.  The reader should see themselves in the these important characters, even if the important character is considered to be a “bad person”; i.e,  vain, conceited, disingenuous, etc.

Most of us can relate to a character that has both light and dark sides. Consider Tyrion from Game of Thrones, Or Darth Vader from Star Wars. We see some serious issues with how they think and behave, but still we hope they are capable of good.  We understand they aren’t perfect, but they still end up feeling very relatable.  In other words, their character arc feels very authentic to our own experiences.  Aren’t we ourselves both dark and light?

But how is this accomplished?  Why is it important for a reader to empathize with a main character and not just sympathize?

First Stop: Sympathy

I think of sympathy as a stop on the road to empathy.  It is not the ultimate goal, but moving in the right direction.  Let me make this clear, it is not bad to sympathize for someone. However, make sure you are not using sympathetic feelings to alienate or never truly engage with that person.  Sympathy is not necessarily active.  The definition of sympathy is:

sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. 

I don’t know about you, but to me that definition feels very bland, and all in all, disappointing.  I think that’s because sympathy is more a state of mind.  It is not by nature, dynamic.

I can pity the homeless man on the side of the road.  I can feel “bad” for him, but I am not connected to this individual.  It’s the same when reading a book.  I can pity the main character who just watched his father commit suicide, and think wow that really sucks.  But doesn’t that leave you wanting?  Lacking something important?  This kind of emotional reaction is not the end goal for a writer.

And I think it’s important to make a distinction here.  Sympathy is not empathy.

Next Stop: Empathy

empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

 

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Not quite the idea of “walking in someone else’s shoes”

I love that the word “understand” is an integral part of this definition.  A writer doesn’t just want their reader to acknowledge the pain, or joy, a character feels.  They want their reader to share in that.  The author invites them into that experience.  They want to move their reader from sympathy; a mindset, to empathy; a much more active stance.  When we empathize, we seek understanding and share in the character’s emotional responses.  This is a crucial way for a story to resonate.

It is important to note that it is near impossible to truly empathize.  We must constantly be striving to empathize with our neighbors and challenging ourselves when we fall short.  We are self-focused people with very different experiences, but glimmers of empathy can be achieved.  Your favorite author can help give you that experience, but you should strive for this dynamic stance in your own life.  Here’s a thought.  Instead of feeling bad for the homeless man, sit down and buy him lunch.  Have a conversation.  Build a relationship.  That’s a start.

Do not stay at the Sympathy stop, there aren’t many exciting things to see.  But don’t worry, Empathy isn’t as far down the road as you might think, and I hear they have so much to experience!

Of course empathizing is much easier said then done.  In a future post, I would like to address practical ways that writers can evoke empathy, as well as connect this idea of empathy to real examples in my own life. For now, enjoy this helpful image.

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What do you think?

Is it easier to sympathize or empathize?  Why? 

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