As a writer, infusing your work with sympathy and empathy is a significant part of developing relatable characters and believable situations.
Without them, stories are about as engaging as 60 Minutes to a 6-year-old kid.
Both emotions are grounded in compassion, but how does empathy differ from sympathy?
In short, having sympathy for another person amounts to expressing genuinely kind sentiments in the wake of a bad event. Showing empathy for someone is an act of service, typically rooted in shared experiences or emotions.
Below, we’re dissecting both concepts through a literary lens, complete with sympathy vs. empathy examples.
What Is Sympathy?
Sympathy is a feeling of authentic care and concern. An ethical step above pity, sympathy is swaddled in unalloyed solicitude instead of superiority. Unlike empathy, however, sympathy doesn’t involve shared perspectives or relatable emotions.
Since it’s such a versatile emotion, great writers use sympathy as a framing mechanism to “show and not tell.”
For example, an overly privileged character may not understand a financial obstacle obstructing an average person’s path and express trite sympathy at a personality-defining moment in the plot. The character’s lack of empathy provides nuanced insight into their upbringing and inner world.
Moreover, if you want to entice readers into the world you’ve created, they must sympathize or empathize with at least one of the characters.
In an article for the Oxford English Encyclopedias, Rae Greiner explains that “[literary] sympathy and empathy have been key components of aesthetic movements such as sentimentalism, realism, and modernism.” Greiner also points out that both feelings anchor the emotional core of “literary techniques like free indirect discourse (FID), which are thought (by some) to enhance readerly intimacy and closeness to novelistic characters and perspectives.”
Benefits of Sympathy
Literarily speaking, sympathy is a layered sentiment, and where it falls on the ethical scale is largely dependent on the situation. To wit, false sympathy can be a character blight if the person is sympathetic when they should be empathetic.
Conversely, laudatory politeness and kindness can be expressed through genuinely compassionate exchanges.
Practically speaking, though, sympathy has several benefits.
- Studies show that people who develop authentic sympathy are less prejudicial than those who don’t.
- Well-executed sympathy helps to build stronger and healthier relationships with friends and colleagues.
- Genuinely sympathetic people tend to be better leaders.
- People who sympathize with others’ plights are more open-minded, flexible, and resilient.
5 Examples of Sympathy
Sympathy is the emotion between pity and empathy.
- Even though you’ve never lost a job, you feel bad for your friend who lost theirs.
- You’ve been happily married for over 20 years, but your good friend just announced that she’s getting a divorce. While you feel sympathy, empathizing is difficult because you can’t put yourself in their shoes, and it’s too uncomfortable (or challenging) for you to try.
- Your best friend’s father died. Instead of making yourself available to her, you send a card and some flowers.
- You might feel sympathy for someone who just lost money in the stock market because you did as well, but your compassion is grounded more in your own feelings of frustration rather than the other person’s.
- Your sibling has a noisy neighbor. While you genuinely feel bad for what they must endure, you can’t do anything about it.
What Is Empathy?
Broadly speaking, empathy is the ability to intimately feel others’ emotions, usually due to weathering similar experiences. Moreover, it’s a conscious choice to prioritize another person’s state of mind, which often serves as the emotional trigger that sparks compassionate action.
For writers, empathy can also refer to one’s ability to develop character and situational verisimilitude.
Empathy takes imagination and involves a willingness to extend yourself into another person’s emotional space and sit with them there, even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s a way of saying, “I understand you because I am you, and I am willing to share your pain.” It’s about extending oneself to meet another where they are.
Most people have some natural empathy as it does play a role in our evolutionary history and can be traced to the mirror neurons in our brains.
In real life, empathy is harder to accomplish than sympathy. It takes mastering the art of listening without judgment and a heaping dose of vulnerability. After all, you must acknowledge to yourself and the other person the similar feelings you share as the listener.
Two types of empathy can occur separately or together.
- Affective Empathy: These feelings arise when we observe or sense another person’s emotions. For example, if you see someone crying, you may become teary yourself.
- Cognitive Empathy: The ability to identify and understand someone else’s emotions. You can see a situation from their perspective and understand their feelings or reactions.
Quality writing has “living, breathing” characters. They’re nuanced and well-developed. Doing this well requires an empathetic approach.
Benefits of Empathy
Empathy is a wonderful quality. In many ways, people who can easily commune with others are the glue that keeps societies from crumbling. Empathy also:
- Expands your perceptions and fosters understanding
- Connects and transforms your relationships and removes the blocks to action
- Makes you more willing to help others even if it goes against your own self-interests
- Boosts intimacy and satisfaction in love relationships
- Helps in conflict resolution
- Promotes heroic and selfless acts
5 Examples of Empathy
Unlike sympathy, empathy usually involves an action, not just an expressed sentiment.
- Your friend is fired from their job. You know exactly how it feels because you’ve also been on the wrong side of a pink slip. In an attempt to cheer her up, you plan a fun girl’s weekend and pay for the whole thing.
- A friend’s child wins a prestigious award, which brings great joy to your buddy. Even though your child has never been honored, you understand what it feels like to be supremely happy about something and can be genuinely happy for your pal and share in their elation.
- Your close friend’s mother passes away. Since you have already lost your parents, you know intimately about the related pain. As such, you make yourself available to your buddy, give them a shoulder to cry on, and help them with logistical elements during their grieving period.
- Saying something like, “I’m so impressed with how you’re handling yourself through this difficult period. You’re a better person than me. And please let me know if there is anything at all I can do to help.”
- Your friend breaks up with their longtime partner. Instead of just saying, “Sorry that happened,” you invite her over to vent and cheat on your diets.
How to Cultivate Sympathy and Empathy
To grow, you must embrace various experiences — whether on your own or by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Humans can’t flourish in cocoons of our own making.
Here are some ways you can begin to develop more empathy:
- When you are with another person, try to focus your attention outwards to understand their behaviors, moods, or expressions. Be fully present and listen intently when they speak rather than being stuck inside your own head or preparing your response.
- Don’t be too quick to offer solutions or minimize the situation or their pain. Show with your eye contact, expressions, and body language that you “get” what is happening with them.
- Tell the other person what you’re hearing them say. Allow them to feel deeply heard. This can’t be a rote repetition of their words but a sincere reflection of the feelings behind the spoken words.
- Physically mirror the other person in their body language if you can do it without it looking weird. We do this unconsciously with people we like, so try to do it intentionally to show a connection.
- Actively imagine that you are this person and that their challenge or pain is yours. Allow yourself to feel the feelings of sadness, anger, regret, fear, pain, shame, or guilt that they are feeling. Only through feeling what others feel can we genuinely empathize with them.
- Extend yourself to talk more with people of different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, faiths, or political persuasions. Spend time outside of your “tribe” to better understand where others are coming from and why they are the people they are.
- Challenge your assumptions about others and step back from personal prejudices. It’s hard to be empathetic when you rely on stereotypes. Step out of your comfort zone and look for opportunities to challenge your entrenched beliefs and opinions.
As a writer, developing empathy in your real life will help you pen more sympathetic and empathetic characters. Moreover, pay attention to examples in your real life. Make notes about how people react to others’ lousy fortune and graft those tendencies onto your characters.