This month let’s look at reader sympathy, empathy, and sentimentality, three emotional states that are often misunderstood in fiction.
Sympathy might be defined as an understanding, perception, or appreciation of another’s situation. More simply, it’s the ability to care about someone else. In terms of fiction, it’s the creation of characters who experience situations that a reader can identify with. It could be a specific problem that the character faces, or it could be something more existential, such as being an outcast among her peers. What’s important to remember, is that sympathy is largely driven by character desire or stakes. Inexperienced writers often burden their stories with extraneous details that have nothing to do with what their characters want. That may create mild interest, but it doesn’t foster sympathy. If the reader identifies with the character’s desire, she’ll want to know what happens. You can use sympathy to portray most characters, even the unlikable ones.
Empathy takes sympathy and goes further. It creates a situation in which the reader not only cares about a character, but can actually feel what the character feels. As you might imagine, this is not easy to do. It requires the ability to immerse readers in a character’s situation using precise sensory perception and subtext. Empathy begins with sympathy’s idea of character identification. The reader must first identify and appreciate what the character faces. The sensory perception—so much more than just sight alone—then serves to heighten the experience by providing the kind of the details that provoke memories of similar feelings within the reader. Think about the memories of your own life, and how things like smells, sounds, and touch are associated with them. These are powerful memories, often more powerful and personal than things you have seen. Couple this effect with subtext, which is the meaning beneath the text. It is a technique of conveying character motivation through action and dialogue, as well as a way of revealing hidden agendas (much like real life), in which people give subtle clues about what they really want. These are the keys that lead to creating characters that seem like real people.
Empathy requires the ability to sense the reality of another. This is where writers should live. Doing so also allows writers to shed the authorial intrusion that plagues too many submissions. If you are the character, you are no longer the writer, with the writer’s desire to explain things.
Then there’s sentimentality. It’s something a writer should never employ. But so many writers do that it’s important to explain why it does not belong in literary fiction. Sentimentality is based on nostalgia, which is a fond but not necessarily true or honest recollection of past times, usually connected to the idea that those times were better than the present. Whether they were or weren’t isn’t the point. Sentimentality is simplistic, not complex. It deliberately ignores facts and truth, creating a fantasy world that is without value, usually in the service of making the dreamer feel better about himself. Sentimentality is not the same as simplicity, which strives to eliminate obfuscation. Nostalgia is the kind of approach politicians and corporate marketers use to trick people into thinking that what they’re promoting is worth believing in. A good fiction writer doesn’t need to trick anyone into immersing in a story.
– Joe Ponepinto