Monday, April 22, 2013

A to Z Challenge: S is for Sympathy

Welcome to the 2013 A to Z Challenge!

This year, I’m focusing on two themes:  Emotions and grammar,
depending on which letter we’re on each day.

Today’s an emotion day!


S is for Sympathy:  harmony of or agreement in feeling between persons; the fact or power of sharing feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; compassion, commiseration.   

Sympathy and empathy are closely related, but the difference between them is this:  When you actually experience another person’s feelings within yourself, that is empathy.  When you do not feel it, yet still experience compassion for them, that is sympathy.  This is something I use a lot in my novel, The Mistaken.

The main male character commits a heinous offense against the main female one.  You’d think she’d despise him for it, but, after learning the reasons behind his actions, she actually feels sorry for him.  But if you think about it, sympathy is a difficult emotion to effectively convey without the character coming off as simply uncomfortable with the situation. 

When you come across someone who is suffering, you feel obligated to offer a hug or a rub along the back, to spew polite platitudes of sympathy, because you feel bad for them.  “I’m sorry.  I’m here for you.  It’s probably for the best.  How can I help?”  Sounds nice, but it’s hardly comforting and only serves to make the speaking character feel more at ease with the situation. 

I think one effective way to demonstrate sympathy is to attempt to bridge that gap toward empathy.  While it might be impossible for the character to truly feel what the other is feeling, she can certainly imagine herself in that position, say, if her husband had died in tragic circumstances.  True, her spouse is alive and well, but what if he were not?  How would she feel if something she had done had indirectly led to his death? 

In The Mistaken, the female character observes her attacker’s remorse and regret.  It’s plainly etched on his face.  She sees a level of fragility and vulnerability there and it makes the mother in her ache at what has caused it. 

But what makes her truly sympathize with him is how closely her own life has paralleled his, how her husband’s betrayal had made her feel so many of the same emotions, and how easy it would have been for her to give in and give herself over to revenge.  While she feared him, her heart held a degree of sympathy, telling her to be compassionate toward his tortured soul.  “There but for the grace of God,” she says to herself. 

And that, I think, is what sympathy is all about—There but for the grace of God.


mooderino said...

Empathy and sympathy are both strong emotions for keeping readers reading.

Moody Writing

Sheena-kay Graham said...

I second mooderino. Both help bring a character to life, them having neither either makes them cold or a psychopath if it doesn't leave them completely lifeless.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

When the character is a bit unlikeable, you'll need to evoke reader sympathy in the character as well.

JeffO said...

I remember reading your first blurb for The Mistaken and thinking (and saying), "How are we supposed to like this guy?" But you don't have to like him to be compelled by his story, or to feel for him. The fact that you made us able to like him, even after what he did, is a testament to your ability.

Natalie Aguirre said...

You're right the emotions are similar bu not the same.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Well said. I see a lot of people putting empathy in where I don't think it applies, where sympathy is the truer term.

Heather M. Gardner said...

Well said.

They did have more than their fair share of pain and heartache.


Andrew Leon said...

The sympathy/empathy line can be blurry, but, mostly, people don't feel empathy.

Ornery's Wife said...

I am not very empathetic, but I do feel sympathy for those going through a difficult time. However, my compassion only goes so far, for if they wallow too long in their grief or sorrow, I tend to become impatient. I don't let things keep me down for long, and I guess I think others should learn to "get over it." Could be why I don't have many friends, huh? ;)

Mark Means said...

Empathy can be hard to do...especially when we don't have a clear frame of reference.

Kelley Lynn said...

I just had a conversation about this at wedding this weekend. Great post!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

What I especially admire are empathic people who we sometimes mistake as nosy. But they retained their childhood innocence and are always fascinated by others. When it comes to sympathetic, they are the first to offer assistance. I have a dear friend like that. Don't know what I'd do without her.

Nancy LaRonda Johnson said...

Good post for giving us things to consider in really trying to convey those complicated emotions in writing. Writer’s Mark

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Sympathy and empathy are very different, and most people never get to empathy.

I had one character in my series who really made some bad choices, but I hope the fact that he was trying, and came from a past of abuse, helped readers feel some sympathy for James.

Angela Ackerman said...

Empathy and sympathy are powerful emotions and signify a transformation of sorts in our main character. What they witness causes them to pause, to imagine themselves in the shoes of someone else. As you've mentioned here, sometimes it is a powerful moment when they realize what happened could have happened to them, that if fate played different cards, or a shoe dropped differently, the character would be experiencing it first hand, rather than witnessing it.

I know when moments like this come along for me, it always feels a bit like a punch to the gut. Life is very fragile, isn't it? And this is what we want not only the character to realize, but the reader as well. :)

Great post!


Carrie Butler said...

Whoa. Jeff took the words right out of my mouth! :)