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Monday, January 13, 2014

Writing Empathetically vs. Sympathetically and Sentimentally

Several weeks ago, I read a story that had a passage like this:

"My parents never really cared about me," Allie said. "All my life they saw me as a disappointment, a waste of space. I was always the butt of their jokes. And no one really noticed. I was always last place, as far as they were concerned. I had a really difficult childhood. . ."

And it went on like this for about a paragraph or two.

I could see that the writer wanted to foster sympathy for the character, wanted to explain how the character felt about her upbringing.

But ultimately, it made her sound whiny--and I could tell that wasn't what the author intended.

At first I was a little sympathetic to the character. . .then after several sentences, the writing just felt sentimental to me, meaning, I felt like the writer was trying to coax me to feel a certain way, like I was being controlled, rather than letting me feel for the situation myself. 

It's a good idea to want your readers to connect with your characters' hardships, but it can backfire if it's too sentimental or sometimes even when it's sympathetic.

Instead, when you want to impact the reader, strive to create empathy.

Usually when I hear empathy, I think of someone who is in pain, going through a lot of difficulty, but really, it's a level of deep understanding--whether that's an understanding of fear, bravery, or obsession.

Here are two examples to illustrate empathetic writing.

In The Maze Runner, I got to a scene where James Dashner wanted to show that his main character, Thomas, was a hero with a good heart--but I could only tell because I'm not just a reader, I'm also a writer. He didn't write about it sympathetically or sentimentally, he created empathy simply by putting us in Thomas's head and showing us what he did in a given situation.

The context is that Thomas is stuck out in the maze (where monsters called Grievers are) after running to help his friends there, Minho and Alby. The Grievers have already hurt Alby, who is now unconscious. Minho criticizes Thomas for running out into the maze to save them, because now the Griever will kill all three of them. When they hear a Griever coming, Minho runs away to save himself, leaving Thomas with Alby.

Thomas couldn't begin to guess what was in store for him; he'd seen a Griever, but only a glimpse....What would they do to him? How long would he last?

Stop, he told himself. He had to quit wasting time waiting for them to come and end his life.

He turned and faced Alby, still propped against the stone wall....Kneeling on the ground, Thomas found Alby's neck, then searched for a pulse. Something there....

He couldn't leave a friend to die. Even someone as cranky as Alby.

In that excerpt, we get this: Thomas is scared. He's inexperienced. But he's brave, self-sacrificing, and heroic. Dashner doesn't use any of those words here. We are experiencing the story from Thomas's viewpoint. Dashner is writing empathetically.

And importantly, Thomas doesn't see himself as a self-sacrificing hero. That would have completely changed our perception of him. He'd come off as more like Iron Man--talented, but full of himself (that's fine if that's what you are going for). In other places, Dashner has other characters comment on Thomas's bravery, but never Thomas. Notice also, how Dashner provides a foil, Minho, to make Thomas's heroic qualities even clearer.

If you want to see how to portray a character's qualities empathetically, grab a copy of The Maze Runner and read chapters 17-20, that's about 20 pages. Dashner's got it.

Here's another from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The set-up is that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have just found out what the Deathly Hallows are. If you have the book, turn to page 434 and start reading. Rowling slips us into Harry's thought process. She doesn't just say "Harry is obsessed about the Deathly Hallows" (after all, he doesn't think he is), but we see how his mind keeps going back to them again and again. You should really read that page and the next, but here are some sentences to give an idea:

But Harry hardly slept that night. . .the wand, the stone, the Cloak. . .if he could just possess them all. . .

Harry wished his scar would burn and show him Voldemort's thoughts, because for the first time ever, he and Voldemort were united in wanting the very same thing. . . .Hermione would not like that idea, of course. . . .But then, she did not believe. . .Xenophilius had been right, in a way. . .Limited. Narrow. Close-minded. The truth was that she was scared of the idea, especially the Resurrection Stone...

It was nearly dawn when he remember Luna, alone in a cell in Azkaban. . . .If only there was a way of getting a better wand. . . . And the desire for the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, the unbeatable, invincible, swallowed him once more. . .

It was as though a flame had been lit inside him that nothing, not Hermione's flat disbelief nor Ron's persistent doubts, could extinguish. . . .Harry's belief and longing for the Hallows consumed him so much that he felt quite isolated from the other two and their obsession with the Horcruxes.

"Obsession?" said Hermione. . .when Harry was careless enough to use the word one evening. . ."We're not the ones with an obsession, Harry!"

I love that last bit, because it shows that Harry is projecting himself onto others, also, it lets Rowling seal the deal in conveying Harry's obsession.

But you don't have to always write empathetically. Sometimes saying "Allie was depressed," is enough. Sometimes the fact that she is depressed isn't that important, but your reader still needs to know it. It's okay to write sympathetically sometimes. (It's not okay to write sentimentally.) But when a character's emotion is important, when you want your reader to feel for them, write empathetically.


Sentimental: Trying too hard to make the reader feel something.
Sympathetic: Telling the reader how the character feels
Empathetic: Putting your readers in your story and letting them see and experience it firsthand

There are few mediums that let us put on the flesh and eyes of someone else, so use it to your advantage.


  1. Very well put, Kami. I have some scenes I need to look at with this in mind.


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