Sympathy vs Empathy

Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo

Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo

It’s very easy to sympathize with your own characters. You created them, and you know them more intimately than any character written by anybody else–everything from their thoughts to their secret fears and worries. The dreams they’ve had, and the ones they’ve lost, or abandoned. The way they see themselves, and what they’re wrong about. Where they’re vulnerable, and what would hurt them the most.

And then you do precisely that to them.

Except, if you sympathize too much, it can get very tempting not to do it after all. To not hurt them. To make everything a little less harsh, or even just make the troubles go away. Poof! That’s the power of the author–I can get rid of the villain, the conflict, anything I want!

Unfortunately, a book without conflict or trouble is a really dull read. And you’ll stunt your characters besides–how can they grow, if they don’t go through that rough patch, emerging as better, and hopefully happier, people?

So, tempting as it can be at times, I try to limit my sympathy and go instead for empathy. With empathy, I sink into their skin and see the world through their eyes, feel it in their bones, hear it in their minds, and forget that I’m the creator of their entire world.

Of course, that requires feeling what they feel, and that can be downright heartbreaking in those darker moments.

Ah, writing. It’s an emotional business.

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