Sympathy vs Empathy: The Difference and Why Writers Should Know It

Empathy and sympathy. Two words that are very similar, both in sound and meaning, but have a few very important differences. Today, I’m going to be highlighting and explaining those differences, and why it’s so important for us, as writers, to know the difference.

For starters, let’s redefine empathy and sympathy, to clarify what exactly the difference is.
Sympathy is when you feel for someone, such as feeling sorry when they lose their job or happy when they win something. Sympathy is not just negative emotions, although usually people seek out sympathy for negative emotions.
Empathy, on the other hand, is when you feel with someone. This is not just in a theoretical sense of mirroring their emotions, it is a literal phenomenon in which you create the identical emotion. You feel the exact same pain or dread or joy. Some people call empathy the only magic humans are able to create, because it’s such an incredible ability. Empathy is also not just created when you’ve been through that experience. If your friend’s grandparent dies, you do not need to experience the pain of losing a loved one to feel empathy. Your love and relationship with that person is strong enough of a bond to create the same kind of pain and sadness, even if it isn’t necessarily the same level of emotion.

So why is the difference important to writers? It’s important because as writers, our goal is to create characters and situations that our readers will have empathy with, not sympathy. While both emotions are appropriate in different situations in real life, what we’re aiming for is empathy. Both emotions involve feeling, but only empathy has the ability to connect two people. We want our readers to connect with our characters, which is why we want to create that empathy.

I think one good example of the difference between empathy and sympathy is the signs for both in ASL, or at least the signs we use in Texas. They both use the same handshapes, but sympathy has both palms out, facing towards the other person, while empathy has one palm out and one in-showing that you are feeling together. As both a writer and an interpreting student, this was interesting to me when I first noticed it. It’s a good mental imagine for reminding me the difference.

So how do we create empathy instead of sympathy? First, empathy relies on creating characters that readers can connect with. This means that not only do they need to be relatable in some way, but that they also need to be characters that are very rounded and realistic. How would one ever be able to connect with a character that is very unrealistic and doesn’t behave or react like a real person would? If characters do not seem humane enough, then empathy is impossible.
This does not, of course, mean that the characters have to be human, they simply must have human-like personalities and emotions. If you want to write about a mouse or a dog, go right ahead! Readers can experience empathy with any character, just so long as they are something that they can relate to.

Second, empathy requires emotion, but there is a limit on how much. If your characters keep going through the same situation, time after time, with the same emotional reaction, readers will stop having empathy. They may still have sympathy but sympathy will not connect them to your characters. Instead of being sad or happy or angry with your characters, they’ll just feel sorry for them, and that’s not what we’re aiming for.
This is probably where a good beta reader would be helpful. Sometimes, we get blinded by our own love for our characters, and don’t realize the monotonous emotions we are constantly bringing up in them. We have to stop and remember that just because it’s a sad story, or just because your character has an unhappy life, does not mean that they should go about your entire book crying. There should be peaks of emotions, both sad and happy, no matter what the stories about. Otherwise, not only will your readers not have empathy, they will most likely be very bored. Emotions are like a roller coaster. You should never be constantly going up, or down, or even just maintaining the same height all the time. That makes for a boring ride, and a boring book.
If you’re worried that this is happening, that you’re being blinded by your love for these amazing beings you’ve created, then find yourself that beta reader. Get someone else to read your book, and have them tell you whether or not the emotions are repetitive. It’s worth it, trust me.

And if you’re writing non-fiction like a blog or other works that do not involve characters this way, and you find yourself wondering how this applies to you-it does. Empathy and sympathy, along with the differences and similarities, are two emotions that we use every day. That means that no matter what you’re doing or writing, you can use them. You should use them. Empathy, after all, is one of the things that makes us human. Without it, we’d have an extremely difficult time connecting or maintaining healthy relationships of any kind.

In the end, even if people take nothing else away from your book, article, or conversation, despite not remember exactly what you said or what you did, if you successfully create empathy, they will always remember how you made them feel. And as writers who seek to create realistic worlds, that is what we’re aiming for.

“Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.” -Barbara Kingsolver.

Until Next Time, Your Sister in Writing and Christ, 
~Arella Noreen

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