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.
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