Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem - A young girl offers an old woman a flower.

Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem

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Taste is subjective, but at the core of whether or not a book finds an audience is its ability to invite the reader in; to become an experience the reader is having, rather than just a second-hand account. Achieving this feat is usually a mix of content and style, but if it’s something you want to work on in your own writing, studying the difference between sympathy and empathy is a good place to start.

Sympathy versus empathy

The difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty simple. Sympathy is a feeling you have from an external position, your own reaction to someone else’s situation, while empathy is sharing their reaction.

It’s for this reason that sympathy tends to be more passing than empathy. You can feel sympathy in the moment and move on, but empathy doesn’t work the same way; it opens the door to a range of lasting emotions.

Engage the reader on an empathetic level and they’ll never forget your writing.Click To Tweet

In application, this difference manifests as a contrast between understanding emotional content and experiencing an emotional reaction. In fiction, this would mean that sympathy is understanding that a character’s house has burned down and knowing that it’s sad, while empathy is experiencing that character’s sadness as one’s own – feeling tense when they’re under threat, swooning when they’re being romanced, tearing up when they face tragedy.

Fiction allows authors to explore the depths of their characters by depicting thoughts, zipping back and forward in time, and grabbing whatever perspectives they need. With all of these tools at your disposal, creating empathy shouldn’t be a trial, so what’s getting in the way?

The assumed-empathy pitfall

Where writers invite sympathy rather than empathy, it’s rarely because they’ve made a conscious choice to do so. If that’s the case – if there’s a reason you don’t want the reader to engage with a character on that level – there’s nothing wrong with that. You may want the reader to appreciate a villain’s tragic origin, or the context of a protagonist’s bad attitude, without shifting their support in that character’s direction. If, on the other hand, you want the reader to be directly affected by the events of the story, there’s a question you can ask yourself:

Am I assuming that the reader will feel empathy?

When a writer assumes the reader is going to feel empathy, they risk writing in a way that fails to create it. It sounds simple, but it’s a more widespread problem than you might think. When we write moments that we know would be emotional in real life – death, birth, triumph, disaster – there’s no automatic cue that those events may read differently to the reader, especially in cases where we care deeply about our own characters.

The problem is that the events aren’t real, and the reader begins the story knowing that. They can be persuaded to forget that fact – to suspend their disbelief – but doing so requires the author to first demonstrate emotional truth, allowing the reader to buy into the narrative in front of them. Only then do they have the chance to react empathetically rather than sympathetically.

Don’t assume the reader cares about your characters; make it happen.Click To Tweet

Even if you acknowledge this, it’s still easy to short-change the reader. Life events like being fired, losing a loved one, or getting married have obvious emotional cache, but many writers take this as a cue to do the minimum amount of setup. A single encounter with a loved one or one afternoon at a job isn’t usually sufficient to shift the reader from sympathy to empathy when things go wrong. Likewise, fail to make your character’s poverty feel real, or their loneliness a source of genuine pain, and the reader won’t celebrate when things turn out okay.

So, if it turns you out you are assuming your reader will empathize with your characters, what’s the next step?

Creating empathy

The biggest obstacle to your reader’s empathy is stoic characters. If the character isn’t expressing emotion, the reader will often take that at face value and assume they’re not feeling much of anything.

This is most common in hyper-masculine characters. If your hero is an unruffled tough guy, it can be tempting to have him shrug off triumph and disaster in order to show he’s got the fortitude to power through. Depict this too absolutely, however, and he’ll just appear not to care.

Part of avoiding this is learning different ways to depict a character’s thoughts (which we covered here). Just because a character isn’t expressing their feelings aloud, that doesn’t mean they don’t have them, but it does mean getting creative in the way they’re communicated to the reader. This might mean your story benefits from flashbacks, a shift into first-person perspective, a mentor character recounting their assessment of a stoic hero’s mental state, or other ways of digging into a character’s feelings.

In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan establishes a writing style which allows her to zip forward in time, giving the reader a long-term perspective on what the events of her stories mean for their characters. The title of the book describes how time barges into youth, ferociously stamping out dreams and wrecking lives. This isn’t the only device Egan uses to make the reader feel empathy towards time’s victims, but it’s incredibly effective, as if the narrative is bullying the characters, prompting the reader to hold them closer in response.

Charlie doesn’t yet know herself. Four years from now, at eighteen, she’ll join a cult across the Mexican border whose charismatic leader promotes a diet of raw eggs; she’ll nearly die from salmonella poisoning before Lou rescues her. A cocaine habit will require partial reconstruction of her nose, changing her appearance, and a series of feckless, domineering men will leave her solitary in her late twenties, trying to broker peace between Rolph and Lou, who will have stopped speaking.

– Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Such direct expression is an effective way to turn sympathy into empathy, but sometimes the space to do this doesn’t exist. If the hero needs to spring into action, it rarely makes sense to depict a protracted grieving period during which they fully express and explore their emotional reaction.

Part of the solution here is to eulogize in advance. This is something I discussed in How (And When) To Kill A Character, and the idea is to prep the reader for tragedy (or triumph) by establishing a useful context beforehand. The simplest (and least effective) way of doing this would be to have a character exclaim, “Boy, I sure love my job, I don’t know what I’d do without it!”, right before they’re fired. If this is done with a degree of subtlety, it sets up a situation where the reader understands how a character would feel in a given situation. When that situation occurs, the author can then afford not to dwell on its impact because the reader is drawing on the information and emotional context already given.

If you don’t set up why an event matters, don’t expect the reader to fill in the gaps.Click To Tweet

This method is effective – it gives you the time and space to properly seed an empathetic response while leaving you free to leap into the next plot event – but it’s worth taking a second to consider whether your story is in its best form if it’s genuinely impractical to show a character’s full response to something after it happens. Egan proves that there are more options for doing so than you might think, and if a huge moment for the character doesn’t allow for introspection, does it actually have emotional significance, or is it just an excuse to move on to the next scene? If so, that can be a valid choice, but if you’re killing off the hero’s loved one just to get them good and mad, the problem isn’t that the reader won’t feel the attendant empathetic response, it’s that there aren’t any real emotions there to tap into.

Sometimes, empathy isn’t about any one character. In Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a huge disaster strikes New York. None of the main characters are affected, but Moore has riddled his story with civilians, each living out their own dramas: a news vendor and his customer who grow closer over time, a psychologist whose marriage is falling apart, a young lesbian couple going through a break-up, and others are seeded through the story so that, when disaster strikes, Moore can showcase the vast loss of humanity not as an obvious, sympathetic response, but as an empathetic tragedy, in which the reader feels the loss of so many lives and their attendant potential.

When Moore’s heroes respond with horror at what has been done, it’s a horror they share with the reader, who feels both the minute details and wide scope of the tragedy. This use of small moments of humanity – showing the joy and tragedy of everyday life – can be used to create an empathetic response in the reader, even where that empathy is generalized rather than shared with the protagonist. This is another form of eulogizing, making it clear to the reader exactly what’s been changed by a later event and why it matters.

Empathetic writing

When writers skip empathetic writing – where they assume that the reader will dig up an emotional response on their own – they not only fail to deepen their story and engage the reader, they also deprive the reader of necessary context.

A fictional world can be anything, and the reader needs guidance on what rules apply in your writing. There’s a reason no-one worries about Wile E. Coyote when he falls off a cliff; he’s going to be fine, and the text itself broadcasts that his injury doesn’t really matter. Neglecting to give your reader appropriate cues might mean they arrive at the emotional reaction intended under their own steam, but it might mean they take the signal that certain things aren’t important.

As with any device, there are times when empathy is the right tool for the job and times when you only want sympathy, but the former is a more engaging, fulfilling experience for the reader, and knowing how to create it will be a huge benefit in your writing.

What scenes have you read that failed to invite your empathy, and in what situations is sympathy preferable? Let me know in the comments and, for more on this topic, check out Not Sure How To Make Your Characters Come Alive? and How To Handle Grief In Your Novel.

12 thoughts on “Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem”

  1. Rob, I think what you are saying is that the writer must describe a powerful emotional response by the character in order to trigger empathy from the reader. Or is there more to it?

    Thanks for your helpful instructions.

    1. Hi Jim,

      Partially, although I don’t necessarily think the emotion needs to be ‘powerful’. Rather, the common issue is that authors assume the reader will infer emotion simply from a situation. Of course, they ‘understand’ the emotions at play – they’re sympathetic to them – but they don’t ‘feel’ them empathetically unless the author does the specific work to make that happen.

      If the grizzled detective’s child dies, for instance, and he just carries on manfully, the reader ‘gets’ that he’s distraught, but there’s a very low ceiling on how much they ‘feel’ his suffering. In such a situation, I’d advise an author to add some scenes that actually speak to the level of suffering the reader is supposed to infer.

      Best,
      Rob

  2. Thank you for the helpful tips. I do think that empathy is a key to a great writing, and I think the way to set it up by feeding the readers minute details before hand is a great way to. I do fall for character’s easily, so to aim for a reader who is more emotionally strong than me is a bit taxing.

    1. Hi Jaya,

      Thanks for commenting – you raise an excellent point about trying to aim for an assumed reader who has a different tolerance level and different pressure points. In fact, that may be something that justifies its own article…

      Best,
      Rob

  3. I really enjoyed the article. It brings an entirely new perspective on how to create emotion for the characters and reader in a way I hadn’t considered. Thank you.

  4. Oh this is such wonderful advice on a problem I have encountered while writing a non fiction crime novel.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

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