Using Empathy & Sympathy in Your Writing

What’s the difference between Empathy and Sympathy?  When it comes to writing, should we use one over the other?  Should we use both?  Do they even matter? 

The short answer is yes.  They do matter.  And both can help your reader connect with the problems and conflicts faced by your main character over the course of the story.  So, let’s define each word.

Empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy

Empathy allows the reader to jump into your main characters shoes and experience what they are experiencing even if they never have.  It helps create an emotional bond between the reader and character.  A way to connect them on a deeper level that in turn keeps the reader caring about the main character and their situation.

Sympathy – an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sympathy

Sympathy allows the reader to feel bad for the plight or situation of a character even if they can’t directly identify with the experience.  This is much more surface level emotion, while empathy digs deeper into the feelings and emotions of the reader.

If you want your reader to have a full immersive experience in your story, ensuring that they can either empathize or sympathize with your main character is key.  Whether the reader has gone through a similar situation as your main character or not, making them invest their emotions and feelings into the struggles and conflicts your main character is going through will keep the reader engaged and invested.

It all comes down to the concept of caring.  Does the reader care about the characters?  Do they have a level of compassion for them?  Do they hope they succeed and want to be there with them when they achieve their goals?

If you as the author don’t care about your characters, the reader won’t either.  Take the time to give your characters emotional weight and put them in situations that will create a sense of empathy or sympathy for them with the reader.  Readers need someone to root for and identify with in a story, and adding these levels of emotional connectivity can ensure that your readers and characters will connect over the course of the story.

Do you utilize Empathy and Sympathy in your writing?  Is one more important to you than the other?  Is it important for the reader to empathize or sympathize with your main character?  Leave a comment and let me know.