Being a Better Writer: Sympathetic Villains

URGENT: READ THIS FOLLOW-UP IF YOU READ THIS POST! It clarifies a few important things.

… are a mistaken understanding.

Okay, that’s a strong statement as a lead-in for today’s post, but it has merit! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the weekly writing guide post where we discuss, well, writing topics of all kind.

Today’s topic, Sympthetic Villains, is another request topic. It’s also a topic that I knew would inspire a bit of controversy when I tackled it, particularly among newer writers, because of the amount of misunderstanding I’ve seen concerning it. Misunderstanding that comes from, unfortunately, the name itself and the oft-mistaken misuse of two similar but different words: sympathy … and empathy.

See, a lot of people use the former when they mean the latter. And, to be fair, the two share similar meanings. Sympathy is defined firstly as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Pretty close, right? Well, you’d think so until you saw the second, third, or even fourth definitions (depending on the dictionary) of sympathy, which move from “feelings of” to “sharing understanding” or even “agreeing with.”

Uh-oh. Can you see where the the use of the wrong word can cause a problem for young, newbie writers yet? Or even for more experienced authors? The problem is that while empathy means understanding a character’s perspective, sympathy means agreeing with it.

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Being a Better Writer: Empathy for Your Characters

Greetings from Alaska, readers! Yes, that’s right, I’m home visiting my parents for a few days. And old friends. It’s fantastic. I flew in Sunday morning, after a nice long layover in Seattle which was most of my Saturday. As usual, the trip to my hometown was roughly a full day’s journey. That was okay, however, as I’d brought my WiiU with me.

Yes, I own a WiiU. I also own The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. So when I had my fifteen hour layover, well … I had plenty to keep me occupied. No spoilers, but man is that game fun. Complete, go anywhere freedom.

Again, no spoilers, so I won’t say much about my journey thus far. But it has been an excellent one. You ever played Fallout? Well, imagine that kind of freedom and setting applied to the land of Hyrule and Zelda series, and that’s Breath of the Wild. The scale is titanic, the world ambitious beyond almost anything I’ve ever played, and the tools and toys you can play with offer a kind of freedom few games can match.

Of course, we’re here to talk about books, not games, so maybe I should change my topic. Bring things back to the site’s primary focus. Being a Better Writer, right?

So, what is the topic of choice today? Well, if you’ll check the topic bar for the day, it’s actually having Empathy for your characters. This topic is one that actually hadn’t made it to my list, if only because it came in via message from one of the readers here (So … Hello Feather Note, this is your ship coming in), and as I was traveling, I figured “Well, why not? That’s a good topic worth discussing, and I can pull it off from a borrowed Chromebook.”

So, empathy for your characters. There are a couple of angles I can come at this with, so I’m going to talk about the most obvious one first, or the one that, I think, most readers will jump to first: getting the reader to have empathy for your characters.

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