In his book, The Anatomy of Story, John Truby examines the distinction between sympathy versus empathy with regard to character likability. He emphasizes that a successful protagonist has to hold readers and audiences captive. A hateful, selfish protagonist is unlikely to do so.
With the proliferation of deeply flawed protagonists in recent years writers have had to use specific techniques to make such characters engaging. Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Carrie Mathison (Homeland), and Joe Goldberg (You), are all iconic examples of how to write characters that audiences can’t get enough of despite their being psychologically or morally damaged.
“Understanding the distinction between sympathy versus empathy in a story character allows you to write damaged or flawed characters that may literally get away with murder.”
But how does this work? What keeps us interested in such deeply flawed characters? John Truby explains that our engagement with them is one of empathy rather than sympathy:
“Make the audience empathize with your hero, not sympathize. Everyone talks about the need to make your hero likable. Having a likable (sympathetic) hero can be valuable because the audience wants the hero to reach his goal. In effect, the audience participates in telling the story. But some of the most powerful heroes in stories are not likable at all. Yet we are still fascinated by them.
KEY POINT: What’s really important is that audiences understand the character but not necessarily like everything he does. [It] is to show the audience the hero’s motive.”
The overall point is that if you show your people why your hero chooses or is forced to act in the way that he does, they will have empathy for him without necessarily approving of his actions. This is a crucial distinction and one that provides an important technique that no writer can be without.
Sympathy versus empathy highlights the crucial distinction in stories between understanding a character’s motivation and liking it.