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.


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.


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.






Writing Tip #7: Projecting Emotion

You’re a writer.  You’re also a human being.  A human being with emotions and feelings that can be valuable tools when it comes to your writing.  Gauging your writing by how you feel while writing something is an important aspect of the writing process, and one that can help you connect on a deeper level with your readers.

You are your first audience for your work.  The ideas are in your head, coming together, piece by piece, until you write or type them out for your eyes to see as words on the page or screen.  And you just stare blankly at them.  Words.  Sigh. What you wrote doesn’t excite you or energize you.  It’s just boring words.

Think about how a reader would feel reading that dull string of words that even you didn’t feel excited about.

This is the last thing you want.

When I write, I want to find myself smiling or laughing as I write comedy.  I want to feel my pulse racing as I write an intense action sequence. I want to feel tears in my eyes if I’m writing an emotionally heavy scene.  I want to feel something, because if I don’t, how can I expect my readers to feel anything?

There a lots of these moments in my novel, The Field.  Moments where I would be in the middle of typing and get so emotionally invested that I would have to walk a lap around my apartment, collect myself, then come back to the keyboard.  There were sequences where that’s all I wrote that day because it was too intense for me to keep writing after I had hit the final period. 

These are the moments in in your writing that matter.  The ones that give your reader a visceral reaction to what they are reading or seeing on the stage or screen.  You have the power through your words to give the reader or viewer what they deserve: a rollercoaster ride of emotions and feelings.

It all starts with you.

If you’re not laughing at the jokes you’re writing, then an audience will likely react the same way. If you write an action-packed sequence and you don’t have any adrenaline pumping through you as you write it, the reader or audience may yawn their way through.  Because if you don’t care, why should the audience?

Another way to check the effectiveness of injecting emotion into your writing is to go back to a sequence you wrote long ago and see if it triggers similar feelings inside from the first time you wrote it.  If it does, then you have created an emotionally impactful scene, sequence, or chapter. And hopefully those emotional beats will resonate with readers as they experience your story.

Remember, creative writing is not an essay or an instruction manual.  It should be an emotional experience for the reader that starts with you, the writer.