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Understanding Empathy

by William H. Coles


An Empathetic Fictional Character is Multidimensional.

By William H. Coles

First, sympathy is not empathy. Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy involves feeling with them. Sympathy frequents the brain, empathy rules the soul.

The importance of empathy in our lives is enormous but underestimated and often ignored. Empathy is a concept-phenomenon and an experience, and it seems that you may have it or not, and probably if you have it, it fluctuates throughout life. The question for writers is: can consideration of empathy help create believable characters that enhance story quality? 

Twenty-four years ago, I started a career in writing literary fiction stories, stories, that might be significant enough to stimulate readers to consider the complexities of human existence. It may seem crazy, but I wanted my work to be read and passed on to future generations, to let people in the future know what we are like. (And I thought that striving for a near impossible goal might make me a better writer and storyteller.)

I knew thoughts and ideas were essential to the basics of a written story.  But over time, I recognized a need to master characters’ emotions to achieve great stories. And to do that, I needed to assess my own emotional responses. I started with empathy.

In 1964, I was a physician in the Air Force stationed in central France. I was made part of a commission to examine the extermination camp of Dachau, liberated in 1945. My experience was too disturbing to be too detailed, but I saw inhuman barracks; how cyanide pellets were heated to force deadly gas through vents into death chambers that were disguised as showers; brick crematoriums with the oven doors open; piles of human ash blanketing the earth outside. And I felt from the physical reality that confronted me, the victims’ surprise, fear of death, loss of faith and hope, exhaustion, gnawing hunger, the pain of fingernails ripped out as they clawed the walls in the final minutes trying to escape leaving  parallel scratches just above eye level on the walls. I was thinking what the victims must have felt and thought and I assumed it was my capacity for empathy.  Those feelings from 1964 still haunt me more than sixty years later.

But for years now, I haven’t come up with many other examples, at least that intense. I’ve had plenty of sympathy, compassion and pity, yes, but few significant connections through empathy. In truth, I had to conclude I am way below average on the human-empathy scale. But from my studies, I’d rank myself at the top of understanding what others are capable with empathy. That’s useful. For a fiction author, having an extensive understanding of empathy widens the scope of character-based storytelling.

Psychologists try to corral humans’ understanding of each other’s capability for empathy because of its social importance. And writers of fictional story form characters acting with a consistent degree of empathy can benefit from the psychologists’ research by gaining confidence in the existence of mental transference between minds.

Psychologists work with Theory of Mind, a phenomenon of mental transference between minds that is ability to attribute mental states like beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge to others that are different from your own. Comprehension of the phenomenon is made clearer by this example of a false belief task, one of many tests that demonstrate aspects of Theory of Mind:

An adult is in a room with two children. Susie and Alfred. Susie has a ball with a red stripe and places it in a basket. She leaves the room. Alfred takes the ball out of the basket and puts it in a box. As Susie returns, the adult asks Alfred where Susie will look for her ball. If he says in the box he fails (the ball is in the box is a truth for him but he fails to have the understanding of what Susie is thinking about the ball, that she has a false belief it is in the basket). But if Alfred says she’ll say the ball is in the basket, he knows the truth is in the box and understands what Susie will be thinking truth is in the basket –that was where she saw the ball last. A demonstration of Theory of Mind.

Most Children develop theory of mind around five years of age. It is absent or deficient in Schizophrenia, autism, alcoholism, drug addictions, aging, and other conditions.

Here’s an example to bring the concept closer to home.

You’re driving on a two-lane highway. You’re adjusting directions slightly to stay in lane, signaling, accelerating, braking, listening to the radio, and above it all, as a good driver, you’re aware of what may be in the brain of a motorcyclist dressed in leather on an a top-quality Harley-Davidson coming from the opposite direction. He’s behind a truck, and you’re sure, by how he swerves back and forth into your lane with acceleration and the deceleration, that he’s going to try to pass an eighteen-wheeler coming at you. You sense the “intent” in his brain. It’s an awareness, an acceptance of what another might think–Theory of Mind. And you act: you pull off to the side of the road to avoid collision. It is a Theory-of-Mind experience resulting in a “positive” “social” interaction.

The phenomenon of Theory of Mind affects social interaction and is deemed crucial for everyday human social interactions when analyzing, judging, and inferring others’ behaviors. And understanding the concept is an additional resource for developing significant fictional characters.

If you’re interested in quality of life–and since empathy is an active process of anticipating the thoughts and souls of others–you’ll be inspired to know that Theory of Mind can be improved by learning.

We can read books, especially literature; improve our education by studying and learning about everything possible; and we can take an interest in people without thought of personal gain. Making music together binds individuals into cohesive social groups, and dancing forms synchronous group behavior. Sharing attention and intention and simply being aware that if you’re far away from others, meaningful connections are detrimental to Theory of Mind.

Loss of empathy is associated with social isolation in contemporary society: cell phones and computers trap our attention and thought process and our average attention-span shrinks from minutes to a few seconds. And you can identify symptoms of empathy loss as they emerge in society: people are self-centered, uncaring; obsessed with excessive wealth, unconcerned with the well-being of others; and empathetic governance disappears.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ studies found loss of individual empathy is associated with less reading, less education, social isolation, and loss of support for the arts; Society as a whole is affected too when empathy declines in the collective aptitudes of a population: materialism, decreased philanthropy and volunteerism,.

A fictional character’s credibility, believability, and significance increase, at least partially, when an author is aware of empathy in character. Empathy is especially useful to maintain consistency in character’s attributes, significant features, and realism.


In Narration

            –He felt her pain enough for him to look away to hide the moistness in his eyes. [Empathy}

           –He was oblivious to the grief she felt, even when she begged him to stop talking about it. [No empathy]

Or, In Dialogue.

            “I’m hurting, Jake, I loved her.”

                        –“I don’t care.”  [No empathy.]

                        –“I can make an appointment with a grief counselor I know.” [Empathetic.]

in dependent on an author’s conscious decision to insert individual capacity for empathy, and to imply empathetic capacity for community in the setting used.

Will the future of America be an apathetic society void of empathetic caring for others? Probably. Still, something can be done. And authors can improve their characters by thorough comprehension of the effects of empathy.

Characters and individuals can denounce apathy in any form … especially apathy for compassion and empathy. They can encourage caring for others and refuse to practice greed over altruism, inhumanity over benevolence.

They can be active. They should not support politicians, public figures, and famous artists without empathy who have so much influence and harmful opinions but who display a willful, self-centered apathy toward empathy and quality of the soul in order to attain their own selfish gains. Their actions mutilate the fabric of a social-caring community that must be nourished to sustain justice, opportunity, trust, and advancement in our culture.





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Read other Essays by William H. Coles