Writing Empathy as a Power or Ability

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Mary L. Schmidt asked a few months ago about writing a post about empathy or intuitiveness towards emotions.  Now, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think this is something we should look at for every character.  Sure, you have those who possess the power to manipulate emotions and those who can read them from a distance, but those can also be considered telepathy.  Empathy falls into an odd category if you make it a power, so let’s take a look at it.

Why is empathy a tough and strange one to use as a power?  One reason is because it is very ‘narrow’ in scope with it connecting to emotions.  Not thoughts, but the feelings behind that.  Many authors make a mistake in having characters read thoughts along with emotions and still calling them empaths.  As soon as they get words instead of feelings, you have a telepath.  So there’s a very sharp drop-off, which is why you more commonly find it in three versions:

  1. A villainous empath will do things such as increasing negative emotions or stealing positive ones in the heroes.  They are more manipulative and direct in using their powers.  One finds these empaths have an incredible amount of control as well because they rarely seem to suffer from their actions.
  2. A heroic empath will be very diplomatic and nurturing towards others.  They will do the opposite of the villain in that they absorb negativity and bestow positive emotions.  This is if they have control because many times they will simply sense things and be used to foster suspense and drama.
  3. The third empath has no control whatsoever.  They are at the whims of the emotions around them.  For example, f people are angry then they get mad for no reason or have an urge to get away.  They have no barrier to block the emotions of others, which is something you can find in reality as well.  (In my books, I did something like this with Dariana in Legends of Windemere.  Without her ring, she couldn’t block the thoughts and emotions of others.  So, you can see that empathy can go along with telepathy.)

Now, when you have a character with this power, you need to consider how much control they have and if they can influence others.  How exposed are they to the emotions of others is a great starting point.  In fact, this is something one should probably consider for all of their characters.  Empathy is a very important factor in stories.  You want characters to feel for each other in some fashion, especially if they’re friends, lovers, teammates, and enemies.  Yes, empathy doesn’t only deal with fostering and sensing positive.  You also want the reader to feel emotions towards the characters, which means creating empathy in the audience.  Not an easy task at all.

One of the things to never forget in order to create empathy is to use the correct words without being blunt.  Telling a reader that someone is happy will fall flat, but so could just praying that they get the sensation right.  Facial expressions, body language, dialogue tags, and word usage are only some the things to get a point across.  For example, having two characters yell at each other with no exclamation points, only ‘said’ being used, and the lack of face and physical action description will be nothing more than empty words.

  • “I can’t believe you,” said the woman.

Sure, you can get the general idea, but it isn’t nearly as powerful as:

  • “I can’t believe you!” roared the woman, her right eye twitching as her temper flared like an active volcano.

Bet you got a bit more out of that one.  Figurative language is always useful.  (Yes, I’m using terms I’m hearing in high school ELA.  I promise not to do it often.)

I was hoping to have more tips, but I really only have one more.  Try to write while feeling the emotion that you want to create.  If it’s an angry scene then get mad.  Love needs love.  Sadness needs sadness.  I’m not saying you need to go fully into the emotion, but you need to unlock your own empathy in order to put that little bit of your soul into the words.  This isn’t a guarantee because readers need to open themselves up as well, which is on their head.  Yet, you can still crack the barrier a bit and give them an entrance if you write with the proper emotions in mind.  This is especially true in the stronger scenes such as battles, romances, and arguments.

I almost forgot that I do have one empath and it’s a strange one because his power doesn’t work the way one expects.  Luther Grathan in War of Nytefall: Rivalry is a Dawn Fang with an empathy power.  He is able to taste the air and discern the emotions in the area with the strongest ones getting his attention. He has practiced enough to filter out the constant sensations and only reacts to something that seems out of place.  He never gets thoughts from this, but will try to make assumptions.  It was really a last minute power that I gave him in place of surface scan telepathy.  Overall, I like how this is both unique and not over the top, which feels like how empathy should be.  Emotions are strong, but the reading of them always strikes me as something needing a gentler touch.

Those are my thoughts on empathy.  Feel free to let me know what you think.  It could be on its use in fiction or reality.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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30 Responses to Writing Empathy as a Power or Ability

  1. Excellent discussion. Getting the emotions into the written word is the hardest part. Eye switching coupled with rage growing like a volcano is certainly graphic enough. Thanks, Charles.

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  2. This is very interesting, Charles. I have yet to write about an empath but I am sure the time will eventually come.

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  3. L. Marie says:

    Such a thought-provoking post, Charles. What an interesting type of character. I can’t help thinking of Deanna Troi on Star Trek The Next Generation.

    Writing about emotions is such a challenge, so thank you for these tips.

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  4. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    More great character tips from Charles 👍

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  5. “Many authors make a mistake in having characters read thoughts along with emotions and still calling them empaths.” That wouldn’t bother me much, considering how frequently an author will say a character is an empath because they can see the future or move objects with their mind. At least telepathy is similar to (the non-“garden-variety” version of) emapthy.

    In my opinion as a writer, an empath cahracter can be very useful for showing what other characters in a scene are feeling without falling into the trap of head-hopping. (No, it’s NOT head-hopping to show, through the empath’s POV, that they are aware of another person’s emotions.)

    I have… many thoughts about fictional empaths (including my own), but it’s not polite to write overly long comments on someone else’s blog, and I may have written too much already.

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    • Maybe I’m just a big stickler. The two are similar, but I really prefer telepathy to thoughts. You can glean emotions from that, but empathy is the real sense without details. At least that’s how I see it.

      If you want to write a guest post on empaths then I’d be happy to host it.

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      • I didn’t say I agree with using the terms interchangeably; I just said I don’t mind the mix-up as much as confusing precognition or telekinesis with empathy, because I can see that the distinction between telepathy and empathy may not be obvious to everyone. (Okay, in some situations, the distinction between precognition and empathy may not be obvious, either, such as an empath feeling someone else have a precognition. It’s a weird feeling, particularly when you don’t know if it’s their precognition or yours… *shakes head*)

        I’ve been planning for a long time to write a post on empaths (including a bloggish rant about what empathy ISN’T)… You’ve given me a bit of motivation to actually write it.

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      • Got it. Wasn’t saying you agree, but that the overall interchange gets to me. Sounded like you said you could tolerate it better than the others. Sorry about not being clear. I agree with the other mixups being worse. Never saw the telekinesis one before, but I have seen precognition and empathy get that treatment.

        This brings up one question though. What is the difference between telekinesis and psychokinesis?

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  6. I experienced this when writing a scene in my WIP. It was a bad day and I got into an angry argument with someone and ended up.writing a scene I never expected to be so dramatic. One of my characters had his head ripped off!
    Definitely not the way I intended the scene to play out.

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  7. Pingback: Writing Empathy as a Power or Ability — Legends of Windemere | When Angels Fly

  8. Reblogged this on Plaisted Publishing House and commented:
    Interesting read…

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  9. Great post. This would be hard to write about, and is hard to get into our characters. You have kind of a neat dual usage, because all characters need a bit of empathy, but you also include empaths as characters. I like it.

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  10. An empath can do some subtle things that other forms of mage can’t. They might sense when someone is lying, or even just hedging, without revealing what the lie is. In a fantasy romance, an empath might sense that another character is in love — but not who they’re in love with. If it was a comedic story, they of course would tell the wrong person they are in love with them…

    Even without an actual power, acting with empathy in a surprising circumstance can be surprisingly powerful. I’ve had a lot of fun in role-playing with people extending compassion to people who expect a fight. They just don’t even know what to do.

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  11. Snob Not says:

    ❤️❤️ to tell u the truth it is exhausting being an empath and i think really challenging writing about. so well done

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