?

Should and unempathic person even write an empathetic character at all?

  1. Yes.

    10 vote(s)
    90.9%
  2. No.

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  3. It would be amusing because it would be wrong.

    1 vote(s)
    9.1%
  1. DoctorDoom
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    DoctorDoom Member

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    How do you write empathetic characters?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by DoctorDoom, Mar 25, 2016.

    I have a character who is extremely empathetic but I myself have never been able to empathize and had to be taught how to read body language from a very young age. I find trying to derive peoples emotional states by watching their motions about as about as exhausting and emotionally engaging as deriving equations and proofs in calculus. I normally stick to unempathetic archetypes, but because I apparently like to cause myself mental pain and anguish, I decided, f*ck it, I'm writing a normal person. And not just any normal person, no. The most normal person. The most stereotypically feminine normal person who cares about what people are thinking, who thinks about what people are thinking and tries to make them think only nice, sweet happy things. Someone who tries their darnedest to make people happy even if those people are jerks because... I dunno. That's what people do? It makes they happy or not depressed or something like that? I've asked people and they all describe some kind of emotional journey type thing and all I can think is it all sound like a very bad trip or a drug addiction.

    Anyway. I wanted to challenge myself and understand most people better or something so I'm actually going to try and do a good job and research the topic fully so I can describe it realistically. So if you have empathy could you please describe how it effects your decision making process, how you form options and descriptions of other people (for reference I tend to stick to an agnostic approach, deductive if I'm actually trying) what empathy even feels like, what motivates you to engage it, how it changes your motives/world view and can someone just generally tell me how the heck you realistically write a character with an excess of it? From first person present tense specifically because that's how the rest of the book is written. :blech:
     
  2. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Hm. Empathy is not only achieved by understanding body language. In fact, until you know a person well, body language can be misleading. Humans have more than just body language at our disposal, when we study the universe we live in. We also have language.

    I'd say an empathetic person is usually a good listener. They listen more than they talk, because they really are interested in what the other person has to say, and will only learn about that other person if they watch, listen and learn. They ask questions that will make the other person feel as if they are interesting. And then ask follow-up questions to get the person to talk even more.

    An empathetic person will not turn what the other person says into a 'topic' and use it as a launch pad to tell their own anecdotes. They keep the conversation focused on the other person as much as they can. I think we've all been in the presence of people who make us feel valued and important. Think of the last time you felt that way and then think how the other person caused that to happen. Chances are they focused on you and listened to what you had to say, and responded to what you had to say.

    A truly empathetic person NEVER turns what they've learned into a weapon. Empathy should result in understanding with a view to friendship, love or just temporary camaradarie or a way to make everything feel good for a while.

    I think the bottom line is genuine interest. Somebody who is self-centred (wrapped up in their own problems, visions, interests) will not be empathetic. They may be good people with good intentions towards the world in general, but the specifics that lie right under their noses usually go unnoticed. To be empathetic, you have to look beyond yourself and put yourself in the other person's position as often as you can. As a writer of fiction, you probably already do this.
     
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  3. semolinaro
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    semolinaro New Member

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    If we wrote characters who were like us, we would have a one-dimensional story. Of course, it's easier to get inspired if we've had a personal experience that can be reflected in a character's traits, but it's important to think outside the box when writing characters.

    I grew up with a pretty cushy life. My Mom was the CEO of a big company, and my Dad ran his own business. I've never experienced much turmoil or personal struggles throughout my life, but I'm a writer at heart. My story has characters who have been abandoned, beaten, tortured, watched their parents die before their eyes, had to sacrifice others to get ahead, and so on. That's what's so awesome about writing; we get to imagine and create scenarios that we would otherwise never (hopefully) find ourselves in, and while it may drive us absolutely mad, it's why we love to write in the first place!

    That aside, the best way to understand a character is to understand real people. Observe your friends and family closely; how do they react to good news and bad news, how do they respond to a funny joke, how do they react in the face of tragedy, etc. Developing a character takes time, I'm currently struggling with my main protagonist at the moment. But it'll come with patience. Try watching a movie or reading a book with an empathetic character, do a google search and find stories with those kinds of characters in them. The best way to learn is to observe. Build a relationship between your character and another character who has had similar experiences in their lives. Empathy is very relationship driven, once you manage to get that down, things should flow more naturally for your character. :)

    Good luck, happy writing!
     
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  4. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    First of all, I like this thread-question. I have never thought analytically about this before, so it is no-man's land for me. Thank you for making me think! And I like that you want to challenge yourself :)

    For me, empathy is not just 'empathy' for making people or me feel good. And it is mixed up with a lot of other characteristics of my character. As a young one I always tried to make myself into the most likeable person (or else but I am not going to describe that here). So in a way it was self-defense and cowardice. I tried to not to give offense. I watched closely what other people did so that I could respond and deflect bad happenings before they started. Not that this worked in the long run, but it consisted of watching body-language mostly. Never put yourself forward, never ask back. Focus on the other person, so that they think about themselves and not about you. Sometimes it worked.

    The next step was projecting me into another person's shoes. Yep, in reading mostly. And in watching films. When you are already accustomed to searching body-language for clues it is easy to imagine yourself to BE this other. This is easy. And the more I read the more easy it became. Now I do it because it lets me understand the world and men, not in self-defense. And I write for the same reason. Because I understand these characters (MC's) and want to make others understand them too.
     
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  5. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually, I think that you've crossed over "normal" and are now deep into "abnormal" on the other side. It sounds like your goal is to write someone who's deeply codependent. Which is fine--it could be an interesting exercise, rather than trying to just exactly precisely hit normal--but it's not normal.
     
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  6. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think empathy is really closely tied into imagination - it's not about just observing what someone else is displaying, it's about being able to imagine their thoughts and feelings vividly enough that you can almost feel them yourself. So then it's kind of a selfish act to make the other person feel good, because that allows you to feel good in sympathy with them!

    I'm naturally a bit too empathic/emotionally vulnerable/imaginative for my own good. I work with teens and will tear up fairly regularly in conversations where the teen still has him/herself under control, because I get a tiny glimpse of what's going on in the kid's mind and then my imagination takes over and it's like I'm overwhelmed with all the pain and confusion and whatever... and none of it's even mine. This isn't a particularly productive/healthy way to be, so I've developed some barriers (mostly involving avoiding emotional conversations, which isn't always possible!) but have not had much luck keeping myself from going too far with empathy. It seems like I can either be completely distant and cold, or I can open the door a tiny bit and then have myself knocked off my feet.

    So, if you're writing a character who's over-the-top empathic, you may want to address the fact that it's a bit of a curse in a lot of situations. @ChickenFreak mentions codependence, and that sounds like a real risk, but there are other directions, equally negative, for the trait to lead. I hope you explore those, too, instead of just having your character be a spreader of sweet happy things.
     
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  7. DoctorDoom
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    DoctorDoom Member

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    The story is by no means a feel-good rainbows and daffodils kind of affair. The other narrators (there are three total) are both less than great people. Narrator 1 is an excommunicated cult member with a homicidal vendetta against said cult/terrorist organization. Their world view can be described as warped, atheistic and without moral conscience. Their primary motivation is revenge and they don't exactly have a list of what they will and will not do to get it. Narrator 1 can be a more or less decent person who can sympathize with the victims of crimes, being that they're only as messed up as they are because their mother was a complete sadist and they grew up in a controlled religious environment where that was expected, but they don't necessarily care about the victims as people. Rather, they use them to find sutable targets (eg. the abusers) for their own anger and sadistic tendencies. Why? Because it's a big one fingered salute to everything her mother stood for.

    Narrator 2 is Narrator 1's daughter. Narrator 1 was not an abusive parent, she would never do that to anyone she even remotely cared about, but she wasn't exactly that great either. Narrator 2 is a member of what can only be described as the macaroni gang. On earth they would simply be the vain mean girls. On their planet the gender roles are different so how our females dress would be seen as exceedingly foppish. Narrator 2 is a member of the macaroni gang because her mom has pretty traditional veiws on gender and the fashion know-how of country hick. Narrator 2 knows that her mother kills people and while she won't actually tell anyone, she uses the possibility of her spilling the beans to get away with all kinds of bad behavior. This combined with a mother that doesn't really care if she does a lot of things results in Narrator 2 running a constant stream of exploits and escapades like a darker version of Ferris Bueller.

    Narrator 3 is the half-sister of Narrator 1 on the fathers side. Her parents were loving and supportive and her childhood could only be described as idyllic. Save the insane older half-sibling who occasionally camped out at their house. Her father was a bit of a co-dependent people pleaser but her mother actively tried to help him overcome that, having seen the horrible consequences that could result from it. Unfortunately Narrator 3 inherited the same overly empathetic tendencies from her father and in her somewhat isolated community, did not have anyone take advantage of them until she met her half-sibling who latched onto the weakness like a rabid dog to a chew toy, essentially making Narrator 3 into her servant and minion.

    I'm at the point in the story where the narration switches to the latter character and I'm forced to filter everything through that perspective which is one I have no personal experience with.
     
  8. KokoN
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    KokoN Active Member

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    I disagree with what most people have said on this thread about what empathy is. Empathy is simply caring about other people. You can have empathy even if you can't read body language. For example [putting this in first person but it doesn't reflect me personally], suppose I am bad at reading body language, and I misunderstand that someone else is sad. This doesn't mean I don't care, I just don't realize that the person is sad. Then the person tells me they are sad, and I feel sad because I know they are sad. Maybe I try to help them if I can, maybe I just say something nice or give them a hug. If I were to say something mean or dismissive (which I might, because even people with high empathy are not perfect and aren't nice 100% of the time!), I might feel bad about it later, because I really don't want to see other people hurting, even though I'm not perfect and can't always do the right thing. I may or may not go back and apologize, just like anyone else.

    Some people have higher empathy and care more about what others are thinking and feeling, but most people have at least some degree of empathy, unless they are a sociopath. Also, having empathy does not automatically mean someone is a pushover!

    Bottom line: empathy means caring about other people. That's all it means.
     
  9. Witchymama
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    Witchymama Active Member

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    Sympathy means caring for people, as in being sympathetic to their emotions, being able to relate to them.
    Empathy is the ability to feel those emotions as your own.

    That's as simple as I can state this.

    This might help a little
    http://www.diffen.com/difference/Empathy_vs_Sympathy
     
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  10. DoctorDoom
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    DoctorDoom Member

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    @ChickenFreak and @KokoN it should be noted that when I write things they tend to... Evolve. Initially Narrator 1 was just rude and manipulative. Then I made her a murderer. Then a insane serial killer. Then a serial serial killer killer. Then I thought, you know, she wouldn't be that messed up and hateful for no reason. So I came up with a backstory that would push anyone to alternately complete debilitation, suicide or a roaring rampage of revenge. I messed with the psychology from there, but the result was quite different than what I started with.

    The same is true for a the character currently irritating me. She didn't use to be anything more than sympathetic and generally kind, her primary purpose was to keep narrator 1 in check making them kind of vitriolic best buds when I first introduced them. Now though with her half-sibling being essentially a sociopath, Narrator 3 needed to swing in the exact opposite direction for that dynamic to eventually work again without them both coming out the other side looking like completely unlikeable arse holes
     
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  11. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    So, why where you writing stereotypes, "unempathetic archetypes", because of an empathy problem? That sounds like a bad decision to me. Unless you mean "archetypes" in a sense that isn't restrained and boring? I hope so.
    Anyway, I think you can and should write people who are different from you. No writer will ever be successful unless they can write more than one kind of person. Definitely expand your boundaries. The more diverse characters you can write the better equipped you'll be to tell believable, intelligent stories, and make each of their casts distinct.
    As to how to write empathy, well I'm far from the most experienced writer, but generally just look at people around as others have suggested. Talk to them about it if you have to. And use your imagination. How do write other differences from you? You mention some quite twisted characters; are you as bad as them? Look at other fiction even, especially for traits that aren't seen in people you know. And maybe research psychology if you're doing anything weird like a hard-core sociopath. Honestly I don't know how much advice you can really get on this. It's a very general question.
     
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  12. GuardianWynn
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    GuardianWynn Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi! Not sure if I can help but never hurts to try. I didn't read all the responses, so sorry if I am repeating something.

    Empathy as I understand it is more feeling what someone else is feeling. It is something I think I perhaps do to well while writing(I have cried while writing a sad scene more than once.)

    And the first important aspect to feeling something that isn't your own I think is recognizing that. I mean, I cried writing because my character was sad, but I wasn't sad. The situation was sad, but I wasn't in the situation, my character was. So I was feeling her emotion, hense empathy. Does that make sense?

    Not sure what else to say. I more figured, if you are not empathetic enough and I am too empathetic, you might have a question for me. If so,, fire away! :D
     
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  13. Jeni
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    Jeni Member

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    Empathy is about being able to see yourself in the other persons position. The best example I can think of is a boy who is bullied at school and eventually gets bullied into a fight. The boy beats his bully but as the bully is on the ground other kids are laughing, pointing at, and insulting the bully. The boy, knowing that it could well be himself on the ground instead of the bully, reaches down and helps him up telling him that he fought a good fight. He could imagine himself in the losers place and he did what he wished would be done for him. Hope I made some sense here. Its not the same as feeling sorry for the person and its not the same as being "friends" with everyone. It's simply having the capacity to imagine yourself in that persons position. Another example: You are walking down the street in the middle of winter with your new jacket, you see a homeless man freezing with a thin shirt and shorts on. You empathize (imagine that if it were you in his place what would you want?), then you buy him one or give him your jacket. This is empathy.
     
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  14. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I seem to be able to "speak" empathy like a foreign language that I'm fluent and functional in, but like it's not my primary language. I mention this because it seems to allow me to sift through a variety of explanations of people's motives and choose the one that strikes me as the most likely, rather than my reacting to a single "reading" as if it is a fact. And I have no real resistance to including negative motives.

    Many people seem to go to a single reading a if it's a fact, and many people seem to only consider the possibility of positive motives; negative motives are rejected before they even come near being considered. I suspect that your sunshine-and-candy character may be someone like this.

    So let's say that Joe the Shift Supervisor at the office eats the pudding cup that Jane the Poverty Stricken left in the workplace fridge, the pudding cup that Jane can only afford once a week. Jane finds that her treat, that she's been looking forward to, is gone, and she cries.

    Why did Joe do that? Many people will come up with positive, or at least non-negative motives. Joe thought it was his. Joe thought the company was providing snacks. Joe, being relatively prosperous, doesn't understand that a pudding cup can be important to someone with very little money. A sunshine character won't look at the fact that Joe is passive-aggressively and sometimes outright aggressively controlling in many ways, and consider the possibility that Joe probably knows EXACTLY what he's doing and how much it's hurting Jane.

    So one aspect of a sunshiny-empathy character is likely to be that the only tolerate "empathy" that reflects well, or at least not-poorly, on the person being observed. The abusive husband who's trying isolate his wife is "just trying to keep you safe" when he commands his wife to never leave the house without his permission. The customer that changes their mind a dozen times is probably "just stressed" rather than deliberately trying to frustrate. The children that torment another child "just want to be his friends and don't know how."

    Empathy is a thing that interests me, and that has countless angles, so I may return to discuss another angle.
     
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  15. DoctorDoom
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    DoctorDoom Member

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    @Oscar Leigh I figured this would come up eventually. I suppose it is by definition a personal question with a lot of stigma surrounding it on both sides. Am I a psychopath? No. Do I feel bad when other people feel bad? No. Other people's emotions don't affect me.

    I'm usually unaware of them in any any sense other than the diagnostic. I've been to a psychologist about it, on suspicion of asperger's, not ASPD, as the only boxes I tick on that respect is lack of empathy and adherence to cultural standards. (In effect the result of an immunity to peer pressure as I don't care about what people think unless they already have my respect which you only get if you know more than me in the particular subject.) I'm not narcissistic and I was only arrogant as a 12 year old.

    I try and be as realistic and factual as possible and prefer not to let emotions do the driving, so to speak. To be specific, I have an underdeveloped orbitofrontal cortex. Is that the same part of the brain that is underdeveloped in psychopaths? Yes. And in those with dyslexia, OCD and autism.

    Coincidentally, I'm pretty good at writing all the above disorders because I have experienced at times some of their symptoms. It more or less comes naturally (when properly researched) as an extension of traits that I have to some far lesser extent experienced. What I have trouble with is extensions from the one core personality trait that I lack. The best way I can describe it is analogous to being blind to say, yellow. And because you can't perceive yellow you can't perceive colors made by mixing yellow with colors you can see. Instead of seeing green you see something totally different and a lot more blue.

    I am not the kind of person to assume the best in people. A lot of the best motives make no sense to me and I don't consider them.

    @ChickenFreak I'm basically the kind of person who, if Joe ate my, or anyone else's pudding cup without permission, I'd assume he knew exactly what he was doing and did so with a subversive agenda, because if I were to do that it would be with a subversive agenda of which I was fully aware.

    Because while I can't naturally read body language, I have been taught and I can recognize patterns. I just don't feel any particular way about them. So far as I can tell, empathy is almost an immediate uncontrollable biological response to stimuli where your mirror neurons kick in and imitate the other person.

    My mirror neurons never kick in so even if I'm exposed to the stimuli all I'll do is coolly identity what that stimuli is and decide what I want to do about it. Typically I try and do whatever is morally correct but really I have no natural inclination either way. I don't really care unless I decide I want to and even then it's always a little bit artificial, especially when it involves expected empathy centric behaviors. Because there's always the thought of why do I want to expend the extra effort? What do I get out of it? Why should I care? The response to that is of course 'because the universe doesn't orbit around you, moron.' But I can see the line that could easily be crossed if one was so inclined.

    And when I say archetype, what I mean is places where this core deficit can branch off into something else entirely, should the ideology, morality, and life experiences be changed. I don't write stereotypes, but my writing is limited by what I know. As is everyone's. You try and describe and contrive a color you can't see and you get the paint from The Third Policeman.
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2016
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  16. Simpson17866
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    Simpson17866 Contributing Member Contributor

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    @DoctorDoom First lesson: an empathic person would use paragraphs to break up a wall of text that long ;)
     
  17. DoctorDoom
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    DoctorDoom Member

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    I apologize. I wrote it on a phone where the lack of spaces was less noticeable.
     
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  18. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I always found the difference between sympathy and empathy is sympathy can make a sucker out of you ( if you let it ) empathy can't.

    Not to go into too much detail but I knew a kid who would get angry - a lot. He would scream, swear, storm around and fling things. It made living with him impossible. Granted the kid had been through a lot but when he's whipping lightbulbs down the hall your sympathy for his former abuse has evaporated. Empathy kicks in. You understand that he's angry but you still tell him - you're 18 years old, knock it the hell off.

    When I write, I think of peoples motives and reactions. I don't turn people into saints cause they've been abused. I don't turn abusers into martyrs that need help. And on the flip side I don't write cynical. I tend to find cynicism brings out as much narrow-mindedness as someone wearing rosy-colored glasses. Each is wrong.

    My thinking is the kid is whipping light bulbs because he's angry. And because his anger once went unheard, he's forever going to make someone hear it. And by that - it's also a kinda revenge. A punishment. Empathy allows me to recognize both feelings ( my own and the kid's ) and not decide which one is more 'right.' They just are.
     
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  19. Seraph751
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    Seraph751 If I fell down the rabbit hole...

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    I have a hard time reading people as well!!!! Though I did teach myself to read body language and gage situations through basically a pattern of movements dependent on each person.

    Upset Pattern:
    Clomping sound of boots (my other half wears cowboy boots for work) on wood
    Voice pitched lower and slightly louder than usual
    Abrupt and at times wild hand motions when talking
    Tense Shoulders
    Sarcastic.... very sarcastic lol

    Normal Pattern:
    Normal sounding steps
    Voice pitched normal
    Relaxed movement through the upper body.
    Playful demeanor...

    Based on these actions or observations I then react. I do agree that empathy is showing that you have an interest in what someone has to say and that you care enough to listen and offer advice.
     
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  20. PassTheDrinks
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    PassTheDrinks Member

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    This took some time for me to actually think about. When I think about the characters I have created, I would say no, I have not created any empathetic characters.

    I, myself, am pretty much the definition of empathy. If people were to describe me, I care a lot for others and I do what I can to make them happy. Maybe it's that fact that I do this and usually get stepped on in the process that I make my characters empathetic. It's a thought. But I'm not too entirely sure, as I would believe the fact that I don't created empathetic characters is subconscious. Hmm...maybe I should create one and base a story around them as something new for me to do.
     

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