Sympathy and Show vs. Tell

In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, the podcasters spoke about three prongs of engaging characters: capability, proactivity, and sympathy.  I’ve spoken about Brandon Sanderson’s way of making capable characters.  I haven’t spoken about proactivity much (but try-fail cycles have a lot to do with that– I’ll post about it sometime soon).  Sympathy, though– I think the ‘casters really glossed over this aspect.  Their point was, sympathetic characters are usually assumed, but you can make a character engaging without that sympathy by driving up the character’s capability and proactivity (think Sherlock Holmes or any antihero).

One thing Brandon Sanderson said, however, really struck me.  While speaking of fixing a character problem, he said making the character feel the same thing as the reader drives up sympathy.  Earlier in the episode, he defined sympathy as just how nice the character is– but I don’t think that covers it.  Perhaps he’s done another podcast on this topic, but I haven’t listened to it.  I started thinking about it and promptly launched a two hour impromptu speech on character emotions.

I had never really thought about sympathy before.  I thought sympathy meant making the reader care for the character, but that’s only one side of it.  The real definition is literal; sympathy means (and here I bring out my limited Greek experience) “common feelings”, from syn+pathos.  If that’s the case, sympathy with the character means the reader having the same reactions to things as the character does– but it also goes the other way.  Characters must have the same reactions as the reader would in that situation.

Brief disclaimer: that general statement above only works if you want your character to be sympathetic.  There are times when you want your character to act differently than the audience would, or when you want your character to be unsympathetic.  Not every character needs sympathy to work.

Imagine a character who just went through a traumatic experience (anyone from good literature, pretty much).  Their dog just died or something.  Instead of wallowing in grief, or even sniffling, they bounce right back up and cook a birthday cake for their friend across town.  Reading this, people are going to frown and wonder what kind of a person this character is, who so callously ignores their dog’s death.  But since the writer wanted to get on with their plot, they don’t have time for the emotions of the scene, and skip over it.  Unfortunately, they’re also losing sympathy, common feeling.

Imagine how much stronger the scene would be if the character mourned, maybe.  Or, if you’ve set up a vengeful disposition, the character swore revenge upon the villain who killed her dog.  Or if her character is completely different, baking a cake might be her way of dealing with grief.  Even though that might not be the reader’s response to grief, if you’ve set up the character correctly, they will put themselves in the characters shoes and understand that reaction.  If they were the character, they would feel that way– that’s sympathy.

This puts a new spin on making characters seem nice.  If someone betrayed the main character and they just smiled and forgave the person, sure, they’re a good person, but are they a sympathetic character?  Hardly.  It’s human nature to want things to be fair– you betrayed me, I get to betray you next time, or at least be mad at you for the next few days.  It might not be ideal human nature, but it certainly is true.  By having the character react as a normal person would in their circumstances and with their disposition, you make the character more engaging and more real.

However, this brings up an important point.  How do you have the character react that way?  One way is obvious– say it.  After the dog dies, you have a nice little paragraph for the character’s feelings: “Susie was sad.  Spot had been a nice dog.  She thought it was a very bad thing that he had died.”  Sure, that gets the job done, but it’s telling, not showing.  How do you show common feelings?

Three ways, as far as I can tell at the moment: dialogue, actions, and character thoughts.  Dialogue is easy; the dog dies and the character yells “WHY?” at the fleeing car.  Or the character explodes toward the first person to comfort her.  When people are angry, their barrier between thoughts and speech is weaker– things spill out.  Either that, or they clam up.  Either way, dialogue shows the emotion in a unique way.

Actions are another easy way to show.  The character throws a rock at the car.  She rushes to the dog’s side.  She goes inside and bakes a cake (with proper foreshadowing of her coping methods, of course).  If not something so drastic, she puts a hand to her mouth or bites her lip.  Body language falls under this category.

Character thoughts are a little more difficult than the rest– it’s easier to tell with these by misunderstanding the term.  “Susie was sad” is a description of her mental state, not a character thought.  “No.  Spot couldn’t be dead”– that’s a thought rather than a description.  Go where you want with this, but be careful.  (Also, for an extra challenge, try this advice for showing instead of telling through character thoughts.  I’ve tried it– it’s awesome.)

Try it.  See what you can do with your character, if they’re the type to utilize sympathy.  Make the character act more real– or if the reader is feeling something about the events that the character isn’t exhibiting (use alpha readers for this), let the character have more of those feelings, if they’ll fit.  When you know what emotions you want from the character, show those emotions instead of telling them.  Dialogue and action are simple– use them.  Character thoughts are more complex, but more emotional and engaging.  Use them too.  Practice all of it.  I’m going to be doing a lot of this in my current WIP.



136 thoughts on “Sympathy and Show vs. Tell

  1. Hmm… this is interesting. I will have to think more about this.

    Why do you keep using the dead dog as an example?

      1. Is not. They’re sympathetic without trying. I can say “dog” and everyone already loves it, no matter if it’s a pit bull or a golden retriever.

      2. Is too.

        My siblings were watching a Martha Speaks episode today where it was puppies…a guy wanted to make a TV show about puppies because “Everyone loves puppies.”

        So…if I can convince people to not like dogs instantly, your technique will fail? But how do I do that? (That question was to myself, and I believe the answer is, unfortunately, that I should drop this argument on the basis that who cares if dogs die. Which…ruins my argument in the first place. Ugh! How did you do that?)

      3. Well…I convinced one without having to do anything. My brother said, with no prompting at all from me, “I don’t want any dogs. They aren’t useful.” (I forget the rest of the quote, and he does too…but we both remember him saying that much.)

        Is too.

      4. True. Thanks for bursting the bubble.

        The thing is, my task is rather self-defeating, as previously pointed out. If no one cares about dogs, why would it be a problem for you to sacrifice them to your examples? Or maybe…since that would ruin your examples…hm. Still on, I guess.

        Is too.

      5. Let’s see, here’s what I’ve gathered in recent days…

        “My chicken killed his dog, you see.” — “Willie”

        “I don’t cry when the dog dies in stories. The little girl putting flowers on her dog’s grave is sad, but only because she’s sad. The dog’s death doesn’t bother me at all.” — Ricky C.

        “See, there’s one more reason not to get a dog.” — My dad (I forget what the reason was, but…)

        SO HA.

        Is too.

      6. Um, no, he’s not fictional, it’s just…well, it was in a play. I doubt the story was true, exactly, but still. (It was two brothers, one of whom had a dog and the other had a chicken and hated his brother’s dog…)

        Is too. And I have another, from Ricky’s sister:

        “That’s them digging holes for all the puppies they killed.”

        Oh, and my dad was telling me about my mom’s parents drowning puppies when she was little…does that count? Yes, yes it does. I’m not letting you answer that.

        …Remind me why I’m doing this, again?

      7. Sorry…it is too difficult to come up with this answers at this point.

        Yeah, easier said than done. Do you like giving up arguments, even pointless ones?

      8. I didn’t intend that to be you winning the argument, but alright, I suppose.

        *holds out a hand to shake* You’re a worthy opponent, Head Phil.

      9. Okay. Then we shall end this monster and leave him in the closet for the time being. Or…perhaps in a giant pit. With a lid.

  2. Sometimes (Not always!!) people don’t feel grief right after someone passes on for days, weeks, months, even years. Or, sometimes they feel it briefly, but then slip into a state of denial. It just depends on the person, really, and how they deal with the loss of a family member/friend/pet. I always wondered if it would be possible to pull off a character who fell into a state of denial for an extended period of time without making the character seem uncaring and cold. As far as I can remember, I can’t remember any book I’ve read with a character who ended up denying the death of someone for an extended period of time. Hmmm. I’m going to try it this summer and see what happens.

    Thank you for this post! It was really thoughtful.

    1. Denial has a funny habit of vanishing just at the moment the character most needed it – often it’s silly stuff, like, say, your Opa died last year and because you didn’t see much of him, you didn’t really think about it. But just the other day you were cleaning out the boxroom and came across a carton of his old books, that he’d always encouraged you to read, but that you’d never gotten around to. And then it’s overwhelming, like, I wish he was still here so we could talk about these books! And then the rest of your family persists in thinking you’re weird because you didn’t react earlier but you’re reacting really strongly now when they’ve mostly gotten over it and gone on with life.
      Never mind.

      1. I meant to reply to this much earlier. Sorry.

        Very true! What’s an Opa? I’ve never heard that word before.

    2. As I said, every character is going to have a different reaction to grief– but that has to be foreshadowed if you want the sympathy to be powerful. I hope it works for you.


  3. Again with the dead dogs.

    Anyway, I loved the post. I don’t really have much to say at this point, which is an interesting change from my usual essay-type comments. Checking out that link you mentioned.

      1. Yes, I do think you covered everything.

        (Next time, pick dead cats. They have nine lives anyway, so there won’t be any actual damage. Plus, cats are evil.)

  4. Gosh. So there’s yet another thing I need to work on… As this point, I’m starting to wonder if I do anything right with my writing.

    I’m only halfway through that other post, and I’m already sure it’s going to give me nightmares.

    1. If you’re writing, you’re doing something right. Unless, of course, you’re using emoticons as periods as some people seem to try.

      Oh, that’s what post you mean. I couldn’t tell. Yes, it’s pretty brutal.

      1. Emoticons as periods? Oh my goodness, no. So, I think I use proper punctuation (I won’t deny the occasional comma splice or something, though), and at least okay-ish grammar. Okay, so I suppose it isn’t that bad…

        Yes. But brutal might not necessarily be a bad thing. I’ve been trying to find ways to improve my writing style, and that might be just the thing to start with.

      2. That’s good, then.

        Well, I tried it. Not using the “thought” words isn’t actually too bad (most of the time), but not using “was”? Oh gosh, sometimes it feels impossible. Like, how I am supposed to rewrite sentences like, “I did as I was told” to not include the word? Ah, I’ll figure it out eventually, I hope.

      3. Was is a difficult thing to stay out of. I still use it– many authors still do. I’d start with thought verbs, then work on strengthening your other language later. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, and that’s where advice like that really gets in the way.

      4. Yeah, I was considering just concentrating on the thought verbs first. I can still change sentences like “He was shorter than everybody else”, but some of them, I think it might not necessarily be worth the hassle. I don’t want to get so caught up in the wording that I don’t actually write anything new. Y’know? So I guess I’ll just worry about the thought verbs and the more obvious “was” ones for now.

  5. Well, that makes sense.

    Unfortunately, that’s about all I can think of to say here…good post? But enough with the dogs? Everyone else already said that, though…

      1. In which case I have no reason to care. Only the fact that you phrased it as a contradiction made me raise an eyebrow in the first place. But have fun protecting your dogs from their inevitable fate.

      2. I didn’t say I hate dogs! I do like dogs, generally. But cats are better. Unless the scratch/bite/meow all the time.

      3. Well…okay, maybe chihuahuas. And pit bulls. But notice I did say I don’t want ALL dogs to be thus sacrificed in the name of examples.

      4. Why, is there a problem with being specific? (Or just with being specific in my head and not stating the specifications?)

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