Understanding Empathy

An Empathetic Fictional Character is Multidimensional.

The importance of empathy in our lives is enormous but underestimated and often ignored. Empathy is a concept and an experience, and it seems that you may have it or not, and probably if you have it, it fluctuates throughout life. Although empathy is esoteric and impossible to define, it can be a profoundly useful concept in fictional character development … as well as in our lives.

Psychologists try to corral an individual human understanding of others because of its social importance. And writers of fiction stories benefit from psychologists’ research to understand transference of mental states between minds.

Empathy is related to Theory of Mind, a phenomenon of mental transference between minds that is the ability to attribute mental states like beliefs to others that are different from your own. Most Children develop theory of mind around five years of age. It is absent or deficient in Schizophrenia, autism, alcoholism, drug addictions and other conditions.

The phenomenon affects social interaction and is deemed crucial for everyday human social interactions when analyzing, judging, and inferring others’ behaviors. And understanding the concept is a great resource for writers developing significant fictional characters, especially as protagonists. Here’s an example to bring the phenomenon 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 leather-coated dude on a souped-up Harley Davidson coming from the opposite direction. He’s behind a truck, and you’re sure, by how he looks and the way he’s riding, he’s going to try to pass an eighteen-wheeler. You sense the “intent” in his brain. It’s an awareness, an acceptance of what another might think–Theory of Mind. And 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.

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.

You 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 behavior. Sharing attention and intention and simply being aware that if you’re far away from others, meaningful connections are detrimental to improvement.

Loss of empathy is associated with social isolation especially in contemporary society: digital devices trap our attention, and the average attention span shrank from minutes to a few seconds making feelings hard to experience.

Humans need social competence for an integrated, functional society. There are ever present symptoms of individual empathy loss in society; we’re self-centered, uncaring, obsessed with excessive wealth, unconcerned with the well-being of others, uncaringly witness a widening gap between rich and poor; and passively watch as empathetic governance disappears.

Will the future of America be an apathetic society void of empathetic caring for others? For the excellence of literary fictional stories, adjustments will be needed.

For character development, empathic characters would: denounce apathy in any form … especially apathy for compassion and empathy, encourage caring for others, and refuse to practice greed over altruism, inhumanity over benevolence.

They would be socially active but oppose support for politicians, public figures, and famous artists who have so much influence on lives and opinions and who display a willful, self-centered apathy toward empathy and quality of the soul in order to attain their own selfish gains.

And to dismiss the actions of characters without, or deficient in, empathy (maybe as many as one out of ten) will mutilate the fabric of social-caring communities that must be nourished to sustain justice, opportunity, trust, and advancement in culture.

Thank you for your attention.

Read the original essay: “Understanding Empathy: An Empathetic Fictional Character Is Multidimensional”

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