Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story
Sympathy Versus Empathy in The Anatomy of Story

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.

5 thoughts on “Sympathy Versus Empathy in Stories

  1. Michael Shann

    The ‘versus’ aspect caught my attention. A winning character might be one that (ultimately) invokes both empathy and sympathy. My exposure to Bushman/San ways leaves me with a different take on these two states of mind: to me now non-judgemental ’empathy’ is the only valid attitudinal state to encourage in anyone and ‘sympathy’ is either an acclaiming or condemning poisened form of empathy… Of course this does not lend itself to creating characters that are dramatic and compelling still, the concept itself might well be utilised as a theme or motif in a psychological drama though it probably belongs in the realm of non-fiction self-help publications whatever the medium of delivery.

  2. Gerhard Pistorius

    This is an interesting topic . One defining aspect to character driven storytelling is to define the following : Where do the characters come from?. Where are they in the present ? . Where are they going?

    It’s as simple as having a beginning, middle and end and showing how external events influence the characters hero’s journey . Prior to the events of Braking bad Walter White was a humble middle class chemistry student who sold the rights of his business because he did not have the self believe to imagine that he was capable of achieving more – hens he ends his relationship with a upper class woman and marries Skylar who shares his social class back ground. By the middle of the series Walt has finally acknowledged his ability and has achieved a self worth he has never known – By the end of his journey Walt has lost but he dies a happy man because it’s on his terms. By the end of Walt’s journey the viewer does not have as much empathy for him as in the beginning because apart from getting what he deserves Walt has for-filled his purpose : He has revealed the location of Hank’s body , the money he raised for his family will go to Walter JR and Jessi has escaped with his life .

    In short : The internal growth of your character predestines how much sympathy or empathy as the narrative progresses .

  3. Stavros

    Good question Dami. It is conceivable that a character may act in such a despicable way that we wash our hands of him completely, especially if it happens early in the story. But even with a character as Walter White who gets his just deserts at the end, or Joe Goldberg, who murders his ex-girlfriends, it is likely that we retain the echo of empathy, being that we have come to understand their situation before the final descent.

  4. Dami Oyekanmi

    Will there ever be a point in a story where you LOSE empathy for a character? As in, they go down a path so vile, wrong and corrupt that they can’t possibly be saved no matter what’s done?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *