Most published authors will tell you to read lots and read often. Fiction. Non-Fiction. Anything to keep your mind concentrated on the story. Currently, that’s where I’m at. After reading a couple books on the craft of mystery writing, I closed both of them in irritation. Write sympathetic characters. Write sympathetic plots. While sympathy is an okay word, it wasn’t the RIGHT word.
A scene from the movie Road House kept popping into my head. When one of the bouncers asks their cooler (played by Patrick Swayze) how to respond to an insult, the cooler responds with: “It’s two nouns combined to elicited a prescribed response.” To me sympathy elicits feelings of affection, maybe sorrow brought on by someone sharing their feelings with me. So I care about this person. I have a stake in their welfare. But is this the right word to use to describe how a literary character makes me feel? No. Not really. I think the RIGHT word is empathy.
Here are the two definitions from Word English Dictionary:
Sympathy: n. 1)the sharing of another’s emotions, especially of sorrow, or anguish; pity; compassion.
Empathy: n. 1)the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings.
Okay. We’ve looked at both definitions. Let’s take the word sympathy head on. Would you offer sympathy to a character like Hannibal Lector, Humbert Humbert, or Dexter after they murder someone? No. You’d be repulsed. You’d empathize—after entering into the minds of these characters you see and understand the reasoning behind their actions. You may not agree with them. But you UNDERSTAND. And that’s what a writer must do. Get the reader to understand your characters. Find them interesting enough to see if they get thrown in the slammer or killed in the same vein as they’ve killed. Words are the atoms of any writing. A wise man once said if you take the words cat house and house cat, they’re the same words but mean two entirely different things. And it’s important to use them correctly and in the right order or as in the cat & house case, you’re liable to get slapped in the face.