How to Enrich Your Story With Three Levels of Empathy

How to Enrich Your Story With Three Levels of Empathy

How to show your characters’ emotions.

Please welcome Dr. John Yeoman with a guest post on enriching your fiction with emotion.

How can we deepen our characters with the finer nuances of emotion – and so skillfully that readers have no option but to engage with our characters? And with our stories? In a word, how can we enrich our tales with empathy? 

The term is not as simple as it looks.

According to Simon Baron-Cohen, author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, there are two kinds of empathy – affective and cognitive. Emotional and cerebral. Psychopaths lack affective empathy. They might be high in cognitive empathy and be able to identify the feelings of others superbly well. (Psychopaths are often clever confidence tricksters.) But they cannot identify with those feelings.

They cannot feel them.

Take the recent case of the serial killer Anders Breivik who shot 69 teenagers on a Norwegian island in July 2011. We can safely describe him as a man without affective empathy, a monster, a psychopath.

Yet we’ve all lunched with psychopaths.

They may be industrialists, academics, barristers, even authors. (Arguably, a few psychopaths have won Booker prizes.) But their private lives are a trail of misery. They have harmed, emotionally, every person they have touched.

As authors, how can the distinction between ‘affective’ and ‘cognitive’ empathy help us write better stories? To make our work engage the reader beyond the cerebral level of a chess game, we must appeal to both centers in the brain: affective and cognitive. And get the balance right.

Here’s how to do it – using the Three Levels of Empathy

Level 1. Show the surface emotions felt by each major character.

This is no trick, even for authors who personally lack affective empathy. Body language will do it, at a superficial level, and the idioms are many. As narrators, we can use a banal phrase such as “she winced”, “he glared” or we can be more creative: “She snapped her bread stick in half,” “his fingers drummed the table top,” etc.

But is body language always true? Forensic psychiatrists tell us that liars, unless very practiced, will voice a lie first then reveal the truth in their body language.

“That allegation is false!” Slowly, he narrowed his eyes.

Alternatively, he might – at length – cross his arms, straighten in his chair or blink rapidly. The defensive posture comes too late. It’s assumed. Had he acted first then spoken, we might have reason to believe him innocent.

Any author can learn the tricks – and deceptions – of body language. (Just watching a public conversation is instructive.) But so can a psychopath. It’s superficial.

Level 2. Reveal the characters’ feelings from their viewpoint.

Many fine novels go no further than the level of cognitive empathy. The narrator simply describes a character’s feelings. For cerebral crime thrillers, like those of John Dickson Carr, that’s enough. Affective empathy would be an error. The players are game tokens, disposable. We must not mourn them.

But if the reader can slip into the mind of a major character, and feel what they feel, the character gains substance. We might even sympathize with a villain. Affective empathy is at work.

An omniscient narrator holds the whip hand here. Provided the point of view does not shift within scenes (confusing), s/he can give us a guided tour through everyone’s head.

Why had Emma spoken to her that way? Was she jealous? So much for friendship!

The task is more difficult for the first-person narrator, short of telepathy. However, the narrator can still plausibly speculate. Imagine that an heiress has just been told by a hostile lawyer that her wealth has been embezzled. She’s bankrupt.

Her eyes flickered from the sculpted bust of her father to the family crest emblazoned on the wall. They rested on the fresh spring flowers, arranged genteelly in a crystal vase. She said nothing but her face was eloquent. Must I give up my house? My life?

Or a summary can do it:

I wondered if she would collapse, or cry, or both. But she’d do none of these things, I knew. Three centuries of breeding would prevent it. Besides, her lip was too firm. She’d fight me, every bloody inch of the way.

That’s the second level of empathy. A character’s emotions are persuasively disclosed, not by the author, but by another character. However, it’s still cognitive, superficial, cerebral. The emotions are not shared between characters.

3. Show the characters sharing – and responding to – each other’s feelings.

At the third or affective level of empathy the narrator or a major character feels the feelings of another character. One way to do this is with reflection or reminiscence.

I remembered when I was twelve and the bailiff had come to our house, one terrible day. First, the television. At last, the china vase where my grandmother had kept her wool. All gone, into a van. And my mother crying.

The narrator is clearly sharing, in his reminiscence, the emotions of the woman who will lose her home.

Of course, a character need not sympathize with another character’s emotions to feel them strongly – and to respond with passion.

I hated everything about her. The privilege, the arrogance, the smug way in which her eyes told me clearer than words: “My gardener tosses vermin like you on the garbage heap with disinfected gloves.” I felt my face stiffen.

Empathy is not sympathy. A person can feel deep empathy for another person without liking them at all.

A Simple Formula

A great author might switch intuitively between all three levels of empathy in a single paragraph. The rest of us have to work on it. Yet the formula is simple:

  1. Show the character’s feelings, superficially, from the narrator’s viewpoint.
  2. Let the character reveal their true feelings.
  3. Indicate the emotional stance that other characters take to that person’s feelings.

Maybe an author who lacks affective empathy can get as far as level two and convincingly portray how people behave. They simply have to study people. But it’s doubtful if they could depict, with conviction, the interchange of feelings at level three. Why? They don’t know how people feel about other people’s feelings. They’ve never felt them.

To a psychopath, sensibility is a foreign language.

Great novelists operate by instinct at all three levels of empathy. We can learn to do it too. And our stories will become immeasurably richer. Will psychopaths read our stories? Possibly. But will they understand them at the third level of empathy? Never.

About the Author

John YeomanDr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. His free 14-part course in writing fiction for profit can be found at:

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2 Responses to “How to Enrich Your Story With Three Levels of Empathy”

  1. Aziza says:

    What an incredibly helpful post! Thank you. I’m writing a novel in the third person, and at times I find it difficult to get to my character’s emotions because I get caught up in working at subtlety. How can I still get to the third level of empathy in the third person?

    • Most of the examples in this post are in third person, and they do a pretty good job demonstrating how to show characters’ emotions and empathy. You can get into the characters’ heads in third person just as easily as first person. Read a good third person novel to see it in action.