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Empathy and reader Connection...

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Heliotrope, Sep 6, 2019.

  1. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Hey everyone!

    I found this great article on empathy, and why people "care" more for singular tragedies than large scale/multi person tragedies.

    (Or why, in the news, the Headline will read "Special needs teacher and Mother of four drowns in floodwaters" instead of "Death toll now reaches 2000 for recent flood." )

    Why Your Brain Can't Empathize With Large Tragedies | Cracked.com

    It really got me thinking about why having the reader connect to a single (main) character right away is so important, and why those large, sweeping, abstract The entire world was on the verge of destruction by a large and terrifying foe... prologues can sometimes feel a little flat...

    Thoughts?
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    As Joseph Stalin almost certainly never said "If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics."
    Just about all stories are personal. To care about the many, you have to care about the one.
    I can see that it must be an inherited trait from very early on. If your entire world is the 50 people in your clan/family, do you need to care about other people you don't know if what happened to them isn't going to happen to you?
    That said, this doesn't happen to everyone. I know two people that went more than a little nuts trying to fix/deal with the "big" problem. They didn't have the empathy dampener, they felt the whole thing and couldn't stop trying to fix things. Marriages broke up, relationships ended, children were abandoned and jobs lost; because they HAD to deal with the problem [in one case the family home was sold without telling the other people...]. Very few stories start out with someone trying to save the world, they usually have someone trying to save/avenge X, and the only way to do that is to save the world.
    Does the use of the "Big Bad" help work around this?
    Having one named, identifiable bad-guy may make it easier to deal with the scale and reverse the effect...
     
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  3. The Dark One

    The Dark One Inkling

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    People actually write prologues about impending doom for the masses?

    Prologues only work when they (a) raise an important query in the reader's mind; and (b) are short.
     
  4. Oh, I agree with that completely.

    I think, if one intends to start a written story with the reveal or recap of a catastrophic tragedy, then it has to go hand in hand with giving us a character who is affected by the tragedy themselves and focuses on their thoughts and actions.

    Is it a massive tsunami? Show me that through the head of a character who is struggling to get to higher ground as it hits. Or as they decide to risk their own life to save a few others. Even if it's a prologue and it takes place 1000 years before the main story, give me a personal experience though which to view the tragedy and I'll buy in. Then tie that character in somewhere along through the main story. Make them an ancestor of the main character who only hears those old tales from a relative. Or make that prologue character a decorated hero. (Better still if the historical record and the reality shown in the prologue don't quite match up, as is often the case in life.)

    In our world, Pompeii and Herculaneum come to mind. The scope of the Mt Vesuvius eruption, and the archaeological find, always drew me in as a child but it was the plaster castings made of the individual bodies; a mother shielding a child, people who huddled together and sought shelter down along the water's edge, which allowed the disaster to really sink in and remain with me.

    This quote from comedian Eddie Izzard hits the mark for me:

    Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. We can't even deal with that! You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know? Someone's killed 100,000 people. We're almost going. . . "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can't even get down to the gym! Your diary must look odd: “Get up in the morning, death, death, death, death, death, death, death – lunch- death, death, death -afternoon tea - death, death, death - quick shower…"

    Thanks for sharing the link!
     
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  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I may not have a popular opinion, but I think this little bit in the article almost sums it up—at least in real world scenarios. My potentially unpopular take (and something I've pretty much thought/felt for a long time) is that people are inherently selfish (at least to a large extent) and when they "connect" with a victim of a tragedy it's through this feeling that It coulda been me! It's not only the event's statistical probability, say of some stranger breaking into your house, but also the probability of your feeling the same kind of suffering if a stranger did break into your house. Imagining your own loved one hurt, or your own home burnt to the ground, or simply the terror of waking up to see a stranger staring down at you, is something most of us can do.

    But in the real world, this delivery of the personal story for effect is not at all a sure thing. There are those among us who will see that victim and use victim blaming, for instance, or who will see that person as some kind of other. If a strong personal bias of this sort is in the viewer, then the personal story won't evoke It coulda been me! (And can we really say this happens only with those viewers who are repugnantly....biased, or whatever?)

    Let's take the first case, the successful case, and consider it through the lens of story telling. I can't at all imagine myself being filleted alive by orcs, or at least not quite. I've suffered cuts and such, and have encountered vicious dogs, been to the zoo and watched various nature videos, so I can almost imagine what it would be like for some wild things to slice me into bits. I can't at all say that coulda been me—because, honestly, I don't fear orcs in my own life, heh. But I can imagine the terror. Heck, it's not even the pain I can imagine, since I've never experienced such violence to my body. But the terror? Yes. If I were there, surrounded by orcs...Yikes!

    Let's look at the second case, the failure. Idiot plotting is a thing, and it's a thing to be avoided. For instance, you can show your main character in all kinds of danger and failing spectacularly, but if she fails repeatedly because she does stupid things, I'm probably not going to empathize one bit. Give me a character that constantly whines about his situation, who never has an epiphany and thus never protags or grows, and I'm going to wish The Evil One could kill that character sooner rather than later. Is this selfish? Why, yes, yes it is. Probably, I just can't empathize with such characters. OTOH, perhaps I have an inflated sense of myself—by gosh, I'd do something smarter!—and this is why I can't say that coulda been me.

    Am I the only one who reads this bit in the article while face-palming?

    He's using the sweeping numbers and generalizations to tell us that most of the rest of us are other to him, heh. Could he see/feel the tragedy and empathize before that photo of the dead boy hit the news?

    I do think those grand sorts of prologues can work, or lengthy exposition—depending on how they are written. Horrifying things can be written without having a single POV character filtering everything or drawing the lens along with him on his path. We can imagine ourselves there, can't we?

    The article is more focused on getting people to do something in response to tragedy. The grand phenomenon may be too large, make us feel too small, and we don't bother—yes—but we can do something when confronting it in a fictional story. It's not hard to picture the place, imagine ourselves there, etc. Of course, the dry encyclopedia article approach might not be enough for drawing the reader in (although I have actually lost myself on Wikipedia quite a number of times, heh.)
     
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2019
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  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    If we're talking about prologues, I think there's a point here. The typical use for a prologue is to establish a threat that's looming in the background when the hero's "home life" starts off far away from it. So if chapter 1 is "hero gets kicked out of town for using magic," the prologue might be, "evil sorcerer demonstrates ability to manipulate those who use magic." The prologue gives us outside information that raises the level of tension for the readers.

    But while we're reading the prologue, it's hard to care about Sorcerer and victims A, B and C. If we do care, people complain that they got to know characters who aren't important to the story. I've seen both of these things on publisher lists of things they hate about prologues. If you look at the Game of Thrones prologue, there's a compromise, in that we get to know characters who die but we don't really like that much (although people still complain it takes way too long to get to the white walkers after the prologue). If you look at Harry Potter, the first chapter (which is really a prologue) shows us important characters talking about the threat and the backstory beforehand, which also works out really well.

    I'm not using a prologue in Smughitter. The conflict in the first book doesn't play out with a looming villain. Although, I'm planning a "looming villain POV" chapter near the end of the book that kind of serves as a back-door prologue for future books. But by then you should hopefully care a lot about what happens.
     
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  7. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I know. I agree with this. I actually LOVE a looming villain chapter. I love it because it sets up so much tension (like Hitchcock's bomb under the table scenario), but yeah, how do you set it up so that you aren't killing off characters readers just got to love, and how do you do it without being too vague, and how do you do it without the reader thinking the villain is going to be the main character?

    I thought Terry Goodkind (think what you want about him) did this rather nicely in The Sword of Truth (book, not show) where he did the "looming villain" chapter four or five chapters in, instead of as a prologue. He set up the "farm boy", then "farm boy rescues girl", then "girl hints at looming threat, which actually matters because we care about these people now," THEN he did the looming villain chapter. I thought that worked really well.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    There's another aspect to empathy for us writers. I have to have empathy for my characters. All of them, though the depth of that will vary from main character to spear carrier.

    When I empathize with my characters, I take care of them. I make sure they get page time. I want their story to be heard, even if it's a small story, and I want it treated well. It's like I'm their advocate.

    Conversely, when I am not invested in a character, they come off flat. Another pawn in the chess game of the plot. I am slowly learning to recognize this, to see the poor orphan off there on the side of the stage, going through the lines I've given him, his face as wooden as his voice. So I invest a bit of time, which is the character's version of food and drink.
     
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  9. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    episode from the tail end of my AD&D gaming days. Buddy and I rolled up some characters. Picked classes. Looked at how many experience points it took to advance a few levels - several thousand to get to like level three. Back then, just two ways to earn experience: kill something or loot someplace. Looked at the 'Monster Manual.' Book fell open to 'Kobolds,' most of which were worth a mere 7 XP or some such. Buddy remarked, 'damn, you'd have to single handedly wipe out an entire village to hit 3rd level.' I thought about that for a while. Tried to imagine the kind of character that could do something like that, tried to imagine the psychological toll. Still do, write accordingly. Get a bit irked when I see other fantasy works gloss over the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands, and nobody remembers or cares six months or a year later.
     
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  10. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    I’ve thought a lot about empathy during my life, for reasons best kept to therapy sessions. I know people that have empathy, those that don’t, and those that only think that they do. Much of the research I’ve read (and there is always opposing research, I’m not making assertions) suggest that empathy usually occurs when one individual can identify with another. It is a matter of perspective, of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Or that ‘it coulda been me’ feeling as FifthViewFifthView says. In general, this requires some imagination, and a sense of self that is secure enough to be ‘let go’ for a moment. It has been my experience that the more insecure and/or unimaginative a person, the less likely they will be to have genuine empathy.

    This is why we tune out statistics. This is why we can’t identify with large tragedies, unless we have actually experienced something similar. But we can possibly identify with another individual, no matter how different their circumstances, simply due to the fact that the victim is another human being. It is not, however, due to the idea that everything must be about me, as the author claims. It is our commonality, our humanity, that we all share, that lets us think ‘in a different world, that could be me, or someone I know’. Hell, we even anthropomorphise animals so we can identify with them. I don’t believe it is a selfish instinct, but rather a selfless one that allowed our primitive ancestors a unique level of understanding of each other. An empathic understanding that allowed for greater cooperation, one of our most potent evolutionary strengths (the other two being fire and tool users, and being water-apes, of course).
     
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  11. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    Sorry, forgot about this bit. So, even though writers and readers tend to be an imaginative lot, and therefore generally have more empathy than average Joe Smith (I’m assuming this for the sake of discourse, as I have no surveys or statistics to substantiate such a claim), it is still much easier to identify with one main character, even though fictional and only sometimes human, than it is to imagine the impact of The End Of Everything For Everyone. One character can personalise it for the reader, give them perspective, a frame of reference, a point of view, if you will.

    I originally had a prologue that starred the Big Bad. I wanted to show the reader his direction, his motivation. That he was the hero of his own story. I wanted the reader to have empathy for him. But then I realised the the hero of the story needed empathy first, so readers would identify and be invested in his struggle. Empathy for the Big Bad could come later, as his similarities to the hero became apparent.

    As you say, prologues that focus on impersonal destruction can be flat, but I think it also important to be aware of which character the reader may care about first. Food for thought. (y)
     
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  12. The Dark One

    The Dark One Inkling

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    On one level I agree with all that.

    On a simpler level, I think it just comes back to the fact that readers identify with individuals...not cultures/races/societies.

    Small picture within the big picture is the sweet spot.
     
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  13. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    This kind of stuff is always interesting. FifthViewFifthView brought up the idea of Victim Blaming, and it reminded me of the Just-World Hypothesis:
    The just-world hypothesis or just-world fallacy is the cognitive bias (or assumption) that a person's actions are inherently inclined to bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, to the end of all noble actions being eventually rewarded and all evil actions eventually punished

    A great article on this topic is available here: Believing that life is fair makes you a terrible person | Oliver Burkeman

    How can we apply that in our writing? I'm not sure, but I still think it's something to be aware of. Stories aren't the real world, and we do have expectations on how stories play out. Could this be part of that?

    Or maybe it's the other way around?
    In stories, the world is often "fair" in that the good guys win, and the bad guys lose. Maybe that underlines the expectation that the real world will be fair too?
    But, perhaps that's a little out of scope for this discussion?

    Another thing I came to think of from the original article, about empathy, that I came to think about, is this old article from Wired: Clive Thompson Explains Why We Can Count on Geeks to Rescue the Earth
    It essentially says that people who are good with numbers, while not necessarily being good with people, make for good philanthropists (gross oversimplification).

    ....anyway, back on target.
    I do think that on the whole it's easier to connect with a single person than with a large number of people (as a whole).
    To simplify a little: The death of one person can be emotionally overwhelming, but the overwhelmedness doesn't scale proportionally with the amount of people killed.

    As for prologues...
    Let's say you want to show why magic is evil and bad and outlawed. Make the prologue about a nice, relatable character that everyone likes, who loses control of their magic, and kills all the people who come near them, which would be their family and loved ones first, and then the rest of the village - one by one. It'd likely be a lot more emotional than explaining how magic got outlawed because of a series of terrible accidents.
     
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  14. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    It may be the term "selfish" is incorrect in my aim. I thought this was probably so at the time, but the term "self-centered" also didn't seem to fit, and I've wondered whether there might be a better term.

    I might have to go back as far as Protagoras: Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not. Although for me in context with this topic, I'd say the truth is that each person is the lens through which he views and evaluates the world. Forget rose-colored glasses; there are Fifthview-colored glasses, and Heliotrope-colored glasses, and Svrtnsse-colored glasses, etc. The color is Fifthview; or, Heliotrope; or, Svrtnsse. It is a middling metaphor, because if I view another as being someone unlike me, then that person isn't tinted Fifthview. OTOH, to have an impression of other, I must also have an impression of Fifthview, so yes, I am still evaluating through the lens of Fifthview, heh.

    I do believe that selfish tendencies are strong in most people; but identification with, and empathy for another person may not be for purely selfish reasons, at least not in the sense that such identification brings personal gain or benefit.

    Identification with — there is an idea that commonly arises when discussing protagonists and other characters in literature. I agree with FutharkFuthark: simply the fact of our also being human, their being human, introduces the potential for identification of oneself in another or of another in one's self. But here's the kicker: Many of us, perhaps most of us, refuse to see parts of ourselves! So sure, that dastardly person over there is doing horrible things; but I wouldn't, no sirree! (Or would I?!?!? If the right circumstances occurred?)

    SvrtnsseSvrtnsse said, "In stories, the world is often "fair" in that the good guys win, and the bad guys lose. Maybe that underlines the expectation that the real world will be fair too? But, perhaps that's a little out of scope for this discussion?"

    I don't know if it's out of scope. I do think this distinction between fiction and real life is very, very interesting. Do I identify with the hero, or do I merely wish I could identify with the hero? I.e., is he not so much something I can identify with, except to the degree that I wish to be him and not be quite myself? Have those good qualities, that certainty, that faith, that success that ... (shudder) I don't really see in myself, or that I doubt in myself?

    Plus, genre fiction in particular is a good escape. Maybe the certainty in "fair" is something we lack here, so we go there to find it?

    Incidentally, whether on- or off-topic, two things have been banging around on the interior of my skull:

    I've always had a particular problem with the elevation of "deep, intimate POV" as a sort of cure-all for writing, for stories, etc. I think one major potential danger is the simple fact that no single POV character is going to be 100% a perfect match for every potential reader. For instance, I mentioned whiny characters and characters who constantly do stupid things as being characters I'm less likely to feel empathy for. If we are talking about "identification with" a character as being a primary effect we want to create, then a deep, intimate POV has as much potential for turning away a reader as hooking a reader. It will just depend on the reader. This isn't so big a problem, given the large numbers of potential readers. Can't please everyone, in other words. Maybe I'm not the target audience for your character; you'll find an audience elsewhere. Still, that deep POV approach seems to rely quite heavily on identification with, or empathy perhaps, and carries this risk factor.

    Second thing is that empathy is not necessarily the only, or the most important, requirement for enjoyment? Brandon Sanderson once mentioned three prongs for making engaging characters: Sympathy/likeability, Competence, Protagging. You can dial down the sympathy factor but dial up the competence and how much the character is protagging, and still have an engaging character. I know that when I'm reading, even if I'm reading a deep POV, I'm still viewing and analyzing a character from a distance also. It's a kind of double vision. I don't think I need lots of empathy for a character to find the character engaging—although, having some empathy does seem to help.
     
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  15. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I've spent a lot of time thinking about this... this idea that "the other"can create empathy in the reader... even if they make choices different than what we would make...

    The reason I think it works is because human beings love drama. We love to watch other people fail because then we can go "Oh, well I would have done it differently." We do it all the time in normal life. Whispers in the lunch room about who was reprimanded by the CEO...

    "Did you hear about William?"
    "Oh my gosh, yes! What an idiot."
    "I know, right? Who does that?"

    Even though we would never do what William did, and we don't see ourselves in William's shoes.... we LOVE William's story.

    Gossip is gold. Human beings have always loved Drama.

    I think, in these situations, the empathy is not towards William, but towards ourselves. William's story touches us in the feels, but the feels are for ourselves.... "I'm so smart. I'm such a good person. I'm so on top of it. I'm glad I'm not a William....."

    Tradegies use this effect.. where we see a character make mistake after mistake until they fail and we scream at them, "No! Stop! You are making it worse!" But we feel better that at least we would have made it out alive.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2019
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  16. Futhark

    Futhark Sage

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    So true.

    I recall reading or studying this aspect of self/worldview development. As children we often have the expectation that things will be fair (hence the its not fair stage of kids). As we grow we realise that we are not the centre of the universe, and that life does some pretty mean, nasty, awful, and completely random stuff. It was suggested that fiction fills some of that void, some little escape to give our psyches a break. (Or something along those lines)

    I also agree that not every reader will empathise with a particular character in the same way, or at all in some cases. Once again, I believe it is the identification factor (?). Perhaps the character displays traits that remind you of someone, or parts of yourself, that you do not like, or don’t understand.

    Anyway. This thread got me thinking. Something about a fictional world being a character in its own right. Could it be possible to empathise with a world that is on the brink of destruction?
     
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  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I don't think so? I think that is the point. I don't think it works as well... I think this is the trap new writers fall into (I know I did). I thought the more trouble I piled onto the world, the more engaged and interested the reader would be... but it's not about the world. It is about the people living in it.
     
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  18. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I had a bit of a discussion on this matter earlier today.

    Basically, I think that our self-image doesn't always keep up with our own personal development.
    What prompted this is a rather trivial observation, but it works as an example.

    I've always pictured myself as someone who's into fantasy and who really enjoys it.
    Today, I realised that of the books I've enjoyed the most this year, only one is actually fantasy - the rest are all sci-fi.

    There's nothing wrong with enjoying sci-fi. It just struck me as interesting that I didn't picture myself as a sci-fi fan, when I'm quite clearly am.

    It's been the same with computer games. I still identify as a gamer, but I don't really play that much games anymore. The writing takes too much time, and it's more fun. Similarly, even after nine published books, I don't really think of myself as an author.

    The above are all rather harmless things, but I think the self-image will have a hard time keeping up with our actual self in a lot of other situations as well.

    Most people don't consider themselves bigots, and they realise that bigotry is a bad thing, but they might still make bigoted statements and get upset when someone calls them out on it. We don't like to think of ourselves as bad people, even when things we say or do are evidence of the contrary.

    This, I think, is something we can apply in our writing as well.
    The concept of Save the Cat is relevant here. When we first introduce a character, we can make them likeable and relatable, and the reader will assume they're a good guy. We can also show the situation from their perspective, so that the reader gets to know them better. Then, when the character starts behaving badly, the reader will accept it because they still believe the character is essentially a good guy, and because they know their background - just like they do with themselves.
     
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  19. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    The Germans invented a wonderful word for that effect: Schadenfreude.

    I do wonder whether something in the subconscious is also at work. Consciously, we relish the notion that we are superior and would never do what William did; but inside, we worry that we might. The situation might not be identical. We might identify with the possibility of screwing up or being stupid or silly even if we know we'd never do exactly what William did. Wouldn't this be an unasked-for empathy with William, an unacknowledged empathy?

    I'm sure plenty has been written about tragedy. I've not read much that I remember. Tragedy is like seeing the wrecked cars in the field just beside the highway. We are fascinated and bothered by our awareness that it coulda been us. Othello has qualities we might easily recognize in ourselves, even if he goes too far beyond the pale.

    There is "schadenfreude" in seeing a truly evil character humiliated and defeated. This is something different. I think in this case, that character is a totem, of sorts, representing the "pretty mean, nasty, awful, and completely random stuff" mentioned by Futhark. That character's fate is our revenge upon the world for all it has done to us. OTOH, I'm not certain this is actually shadenfruede. I suppose there's a sliding scale for villains and other ne'er-do-wells, different levels of identification/empathy, depending on how that character has been developed and which reader is reading it. I wonder if the extreme moves beyond schadenfreude to become something else, if there is no empathy for the villain.
     
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  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Unlike Helio, I think it might be possible, depending upon the level of anthropomorphization. (My spell check hates that form of the word, heh.) If the world is given any sort of sentience, or even if sentience of some sort — however alien-seeming — is hinted, perhaps empathy can be created.

    There is something else that might be done. I have experienced the effect of being horrified, or sad, by changes to, or threats of changes to an imaginary world that I loved. I'm not sure this can be called empathy with the world. Then again, I'm not sure what level of identification with that world, or that setting, might be occurring in this circumstance.
     
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