Sympathy and empathy. They might be two of the most elusive traits to convey and build through writing, but they’re also two of the most important.
When writing a character-led story or novel, the reader needs to feel connected to the protagonist in some way. This also applies to other periphery characters they may interact with.
The reader needs to be able to put themselves in the various characters’ shoes and understand what they’re experiencing on a personal level.
Using empathy and sympathy in appropriate ways encourages the reader to engage with the story and the journey they’re being taken on. Too little of either may lead to disengagement.
So, how exactly do we as writers create character sympathy and empathy within our stories?
In a nutshell: show, don’t tell
When we’re advised to ‘show not tell’ our characters’ reactions and experiences, it’s precisely these two core traits that reap the rewards.
‘She was sad’ doesn’t quite cut it when we’re trying to engage a reader in the plight of the character’s journey.
It’s essential to create a scene in a way that shows the reader the character is experiencing something deeply personal, and what it is connected to on a broader platform of human experience.
As an example, consider the last time you experienced sadness.
- What or who caused you to feel sad? Was it a memory, a person or an event?
- What other emotions was the sadness connected to? If the sadness was the result of a relationship ending, for example, this could be related to different feelings such as loneliness, guilt or inadequacy.
- What physical sensations did you go through? Did your chest ache or your heart pound? Perhaps your sadness wrapped you an envelope of stillness as you grappled with your emotions.
When we’re told how someone feels directly, it can be challenging to connect with that emotion.
But when we’re shown – through small actions, environment, physical sensations, words, facial expressions – we begin to identify on a deeper level with what is happening.
This is how you create character sympathy and empathy. But remember: sympathy and empathy are two very distinct experiences.
Knowing the difference between the two is essential for developing your understanding of which you want, or perhaps need, to use in your own story.
What is empathy?
The following are two definitions of ’empathy’ as detailed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and provide valuable points of reference for writers:
- 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.
- The imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.
Put simply, empathy is the capacity to understand or ‘feel’ what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.
It’s the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, and understand how and why a given experience or event may be eliciting specific emotional or physical reactions for them, without being told explicitly.
It’s important to distinguish that we may not have had the same experience as the person we empathise with, but on a human level, we understand the emotional experience they’re going through.
The second point of definition for empathy above is an interesting one, and good to note for writers of books for young children or young adults.
In many children’s stories, animals and inanimate objects often come to life as characters, and empathy is a crucial way writers can develop a connection between their young readers, the characters and the story.
3 ways to create character empathy
Even the most fascinating plotline will fall flat on its face if the reader doesn’t care about your characters. Empathy is one way to get readers engaged and keep them invested in the story you’re telling.
This is even more crucial if your character is going through a period of transition or is about to commit acts that may show them in a negative light.
If readers understand why they may act in those ways, they’ll have deeper empathy for them.
Here are three ways to do that:
1. Explore a background of unjust treatment
When readers have insight into the ‘why’ of how a character acts or responds, they’re better able to develop empathy for them.
Some authors do this upfront in their stories, quickly building empathy for their characters so that when what comes next – whether it be the character acting out, a traumatic event, or a transformation – we understand the ‘origins’ of the character and empathise with their situation.
Other authors may only drip-feed backstories to their characters as we progress through the novel.
Even if the character behaves in unlikeable ways, a backstory of unjust or unfair treatment can go some way towards explaining – and keeping the reader on their side.
Taking an unlikeable character and deliberately building empathy for them over time, as more of what they have gone through comes to light, can make for an interesting story.
2. Have your character seek something universal
There are distinct experiences we go through as humans, and universal desires that most, if not all of us experience.
Seeking love, companionship and acceptance (by the self and others), going through heartbreak and family strife – these are all immediately identifiable and widely experienced.
Crafting your character around a broader human theme that readers can quickly identify with is a great way to create empathy for them.
3. Portray an unrealised inner struggle
‘Coming of age’ stories quickly draw readers in as they understand the journey the character is on.
For this reason, an unrealised inner struggle or a ‘figuring it out’ narrative works well when creating empathy in young adult novels.
It’s also a useful tool when writing other narrative fiction.
Perhaps the character is starting to understand how past trauma informs their relationships; they’re figuring out how the ways they act lead others to respond to them, or accepting that they’ve made a mistake or misjudged someone in some way.
Developing a narrative around this journey shapes the transformation of the character and allows readers to tap into empathy for them.
What is sympathy?
Sympathy is a slightly broader concept than empathy and has a more nuanced myriad of definitions. A few from Merriam-Webster to help narrow things down include:
- An affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.
- Mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it.
- The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another.
The key distinction here: with empathy, the reader is developing an understanding of how or why a character might behave in specific ways without necessarily feeling it too. With sympathy, the reader is joining them in that feeling or emotion.
For example, if a key character dies in a story, we will often feel deep sympathy for the other characters or protagonists at the loss of someone we’ve come to know in our reading of the book. We step into their grief with them.
Like empathy, sympathy is vital because unless readers have some form of emotional investment in the outcome of the story and for the characters, they won’t care what happens next.
3 ways to create character sympathy
Kurt Vonnegut is quoted as having said: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
A lot of writing advice around creating sympathy focuses on making sure your character is in pursuit of something to develop a sympathetic edge to them.
Giving your character a goal to strive towards is useful in creating sympathy, but it is not the only way to do so. Focusing on strong character development is also important.
Here are three ways to do that:
1. Create a likeable/well-liked character
Even the most unlikeable characters can be shown in sympathetic ways that encourage the reader to like or respect them.
They could be tucking their children up in bed tenderly at night or checking on them while they sleep; helping an older person cross the street or offering them their seat on the bus.
They could dedicate an entire day to preparing and cooking a favourite meal for a loved one.
Use a character’s actions to demonstrate how they are likeable to the reader. Show them exhibiting empathy and being accepting of other characters’ flaws or failures.
They could be forgiving, generous, and supportive – all of these emotions drive the reader towards sympathy for them.
Having other characters like them, and show it through comments or gestures, is another way to continue building character likeability, and in so doing, sympathy.
If other people like them, it’s likely the reader will too.
2. Situate them in a familiar environment
Creating a familiar and relatable setting around the character will help readers tune into their situation and feel sympathy for them.
Perhaps they live in a small, rural town and are keen to explore the big wide world. Maybe they’re stuck in a dead-end office job with aspirations to pursue a creative career.
Creating a familiar environment is not just about the physical setting you place the characters in; it could also be the broader environment they find themselves a part of.
For example, they could be a mother struggling with two young children, a job, keeping a house, and engaging a distant partner.
Using place and setting, when appropriate, is an effective way to develop sympathy.
3. Include a human flaw or two
Roxane Gay once said, “If people cannot be flawed in fiction, there’s no place left for us to be human.”
The reader does not need to like everything about the character, and giving them flaws can help to create more sympathy for them as the reader identifies with their humanness.
Flaws can be physical, through the way they act, move or dress. Or perhaps they’re clumsy and regularly drop or break things.
They can be character-based or emotional cruxes, such as an addiction (to food, drugs or alcohol), gambling, neglect of key relationships, or self-doubt or loathing.
No one is perfect, least of all our fictional characters. Layering in imperfections helps readers to more readily relate to the character, their journey and their goals.
How to write characters who demonstrate sympathy and empathy
On the flip side, it might be necessary to write characters who demonstrate sympathy and empathy towards others in your stories.
Once again the sage advice of ‘show don’t tell’ applies here, with a focus on how the character approaches the relationships or experiences they come up against.
Here are six things to consider when writing characters demonstrating sympathy or empathy:
- How do they approach ‘vulnerable’ characters in the story, such as young children, older adults or animals? Do they respond to/treat them with care?
- How do they respond to difficult or emotional characters? What do they say – out loud or internally? How do they act – do they support the individual or remove themselves from the situation?
- How do they interact with their environment (whether that be nature or their home, or the property of others)?
- What causes does the character care about? How do they support their fellow man actively, without being prompted or asked?
- How does the character respond to promises asked of them? How do they make promises and what do they do to keep them (or not)?
- Has the character ever made a personal sacrifice for another person? (If not, can you include one in the story?)
Reflecting on these questions is a great starting point for developing these traits for your characters.
Exploring the ‘unlikeable’ character with sympathy and empathy
When written well, flawed and unlikeable characters can make for intriguing and interesting anti-heroes.
As readers, we tend to enjoy walking the balance between loving and hating a character, because it’s so relatable to many real-life relationships.
However, when written poorly, an unlikeable character can only serve to alienate the reader.
Two examples spring to mind of authors who have created unlikeable characters exceptionally well:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
In The Girl on the Train, our protagonist is the drunken Rachel Watson. Through her ruminations and obsessive behaviour, readers are at first put off by her.
As her story unravels, the reader is drawn deeper into sympathy and empathy for Rachel, as it becomes apparent that her behaviour is linked to a traumatic past.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Strout invests a lot of time showing us how unlikeable the titular character of her book is. We see her through the eyes of her husband, her son, and her community – with no one having anything positive to say about Olive.
But as the chapters build around her, the reader is shown softer sides to Olive. Strout hints at a troubled upbringing, but it is never used to justify the ways Olive behaves.
Instead, sympathy and empathy are built through her character flaws and her ability to offer a highly relatable and realistic, if sometimes harsh, view on life.
Strout’s writing and development of Olive was so popular, the book won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
When it comes to characters readers feel sympathy or empathy for (whether they’re likeable or unlikeable), the important thing is that they are compelling.
They’re someone who keeps the reader guessing and intrigued by how they’re going to carry the story forward.
A character who doesn’t change, grow or transform in some way quickly becomes boring, and loses any sympathy or empathy the reader might have for them.
One final thing to remember when creating sympathy and empathy
One word of caution when it comes to creating sympathy and empathy is that, as critics say, just because a character’s experience is ‘sad’ does not mean it’s ‘real’.
Great writing is about creating a genuine and authentic human connection. As writers, we want to make the reader feel something for our work, but it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t cross over the line into inhumane treatment of our characters.
It can be easy to drip-feed suffering and one traumatic experience after another on a character in an attempt to create sympathy or empathy. But too much will be off-putting for the reader.
Ensuring you spend time subtly exploring how a character reacts, adjusts, is transformed (or not) by the experiences they go through is just as – and perhaps even more – necessary for creating these responses in readers.
These are only a few ideas, and one of the most joyful parts of being a writer is finding our path, bending or resisting the rules when necessary, and following our gut when it comes to the development of our characters.
That being said, it’s also essential to know the rules to bend them to our will, and to ensure we’re listening to constructive feedback from editors and beta readers alike.
Ensure you understand and revisit often:
- The differences between sympathy and empathy.
- Why they’re important for your character journey and reading enjoyment.
- Which one you want/need to apply and when for your characters.
- The different ways to do this.
This will see you creating characters that not only incite sympathy and empathy from the reader, but are also authentic, relatable and incredibly human.