Crying over your own character for the first time is an odd, but wonderful, experience. You know it has to be a good thing: if you're crying, your reader probably is, too.
But if you have never experienced this, don't worry. I have good news: If you’ve ever felt emotionally moved by a book, a film, or a letter from a pen pal, you have the capacity to feel empathy for fictional characters. You can be an empathetic writer.
I’m a strange beast while I’m writing. If you interrupt me while I’m in the middle of an intense scene, I’m liable to snap at you. When I’m writing a somber scene, my vision gets smeared by the water in my eyes. And if I’m writing a murderous villain—
Well, you get the idea.
It’s weird, but it happens. I’m afraid of what my face must look like to others in the coffee shop. Some combination of Count Dracula’s smile and Jim Carrey’s freak-out face.
I usually end my best writing sessions exhausted—emotionally and physically. Why do I feel the same emotions that my fictional characters experience? Why can’t I just document what they feel without enduring it myself? Why do I get a cold lump in my stomach when a character is in a scary situation?
Recently, I finally found the reason why.
What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?
It’s easy to mix up empathy and sympathy because they produce similar results. Both are healthy emotions, both can drive people to noble action, and both are necessary to treat others with love and compassion.
But they are totally distinct from each other.
The easy way to understand the difference is a quick example:
Scenario 1: You find out that your best friend just lost her grandma, days before the family would have gathered for Thanksgiving. You call her right away, tell her you’re praying for her, ask if there’s anything you can do for her. You can’t imagine what she must be going through right now, and it hurts you to see her so upset.
Scenario 2: You find out that your best friend just lost her grandma, days before the family would have gathered for Thanksgiving. You drive to her house right away, sit on the couch with her, and listen as she relates fond stories of her grandma. You find yourself crying too, even though you never met her grandma—or even had a relationship with your own grandma. You leave her house feeling like you just lost a loved one … even though it’s someone you never met.
Now, which one was sympathy and which was empathy?
The first scenario displays a sympathetic reaction. The second, empathy. Both are normal, moral, human reactions.
But there’s a pretty big difference, isn’t there?
Your Story Needs Sympathy
Before I talk about empathy, I want to underline the importance of sympathy.
You probably already know this: you need to create sympathy for your characters, particularly your hero. Even your villain needs some sympathy, too … the human element that gives us a momentary glimpse into their troubled soul and explains their horrible actions. Your reader should at least understand what every character is going through, no matter how they feel about them as a person.
Your reader should at least understand what every character is going through, no matter how they feel about them as a person.
Sympathy can be created as easily as explaining the facts.
The minute I start to describe a kid who grew up beaten, abused, and neglected by his addicted father, yet the kid continues to show kindness and care for others, you feel sympathy for him. I could be a coldhearted detective simply documenting the facts, but it won’t change the fact that you want the best for this character—you want him to succeed.
The example I just used is a formula used to create sympathetic characters over and over. It’s a plug-and-play that works without fail. You can’t help it—you’re a human being. You’ll always feel some form of sympathy for the downtrodden.
Unlike sympathy, empathy is something you can’t create artificially.
No formula in the world will help you. You can’t emotionally manipulate the reader and force them to cry with your sympathetic character trope—it just won’t work.
Empathy is something you must feel.
How Do You Have Empathy for a Fake Person?
How do you feel pain, joy, loss, or anger for someone that doesn't exist?
How do you cry over someone who isn't real?
Now, I could just grumble, "Make 'em real," and end this post right now. Thanks for reading, guys!
But I think this requires a little more thought.
Have you ever had a pen pal? Or texted back and forth with a person you've never met?
Did that conversation ever make you feel anything? Affection, or enthrallment, or longing? Nervousness? Expectation? Did you ever feel the same emotion as the person you corresponded with?
Probably one of those. Or maybe irritation or exasperation, if it wasn't a pleasant convo.
Now tell me this: How did you know the person you texted was real?
I'll answer for you: You didn't.
You believed that friend was real. But the truth is, it's entirely possible their mail, their account, their device was hacked by someone else who only pretended to be them. Right?
Turns out there's more than one way to know whether a person is real, even if you've never met.
That pen pal … they had a particular way of speaking that you could recognize. Slangy or formal, guarded or relaxed. Also, you knew what they wanted at the time. You knew their geographic location, how many members were in their family, whether they had a dog or a parrot. You may have even known what ticked them off, what inspired them, what kind of music they were into, what they dreamed about.
You knew what kinds of emotions they felt. And through those, you had an empathetic connection with them. What they felt, you felt for them.
They were real to you, not because you saw them, but because you had a window into their soul through their words. Arguably, you knew them better than you would have if you met them in person.
This same principle applies to your fictional character. In the same way, you can create a character so real, with actual emotions, desires, quirks and ambitions, that you actually care about them. Let's look at how.
Creating a Character You Can Empathize With
There are two things you need to do in order to create such a tight emotional bond with your character that you can laugh, gasp, and even cry with them.
Give them a relatable desire or need. Something that anybody would want in their shoes.
Stop them from getting it. Throw disaster after disaster in their path. Make it impossible. Every time they get close, dash their hopes. Even better, let them have a taste of it for just a fleeting moment, then take it away.
This is why being an author is so hard.
At the surface, it looks like you're schizophrenic. You hurt your character and then cry for them. You're both villain and friend to the same person. You're the monster and the ally.
If you have a hard time reconciling this, here's the key:
You aren't responsible for the disasters that plague your character.
You DOCUMENT the disaster, but you don't cause it.
Then you write your character's reaction as honestly as possible. Put it all out on the page, holding nothing back.
You'll start to notice that as you do this, you'll begin feeling the exact same emotions as the character. You've formed an empathetic bond with them.
This is the trick, the secret sauce. The moment you truly have empathy for your character, you can know for sure that your reader feels it too. It's the moment your character comes to life. It's the moment you can shed all worries that your character is fake or unlikable … you know they're real. And your reader will too.
Has there ever been a time you've cried over your character's loss?