Cultivating Empathy

Witnessing Kindness Elicits Compassion

In Part One of this series, I discussed “Cultivating Gratitude” both in general and specifically in fleshing out characters in a story. There are a number of ways to get people engaged with a person or character, and another is by cultivating empathy.

As writers, we are often reinforced into thinking that evoking empathy for a character is the only way to increase reader engagement. In the real world, however, we use gratitude, alignment, wit, declaration, signalling, recognition, honesty, and a lot of other strategies to get someone to like us (I got inspiration from Vanessa Van Edwards.)

We like people who do good deeds, right? If we see someone helping someone else, especially if it’s a stranger and not part of their job, we feel safer around them, because we assume they are kind. We can use Maimonides’ hierarchy of mitzvahs in the Jewish Torah (Eight Levels of Charity) as a reasonable guide. They suggest with increasing potential for empathy:

  1. Being forced to do something good.
  2. Giving willingly and cheerfully, but not enough.
  3. Fulfilling a stated request for generosity.
  4. Someone knowing of your anonymous contribution to them.
  5. Someone not knowing your identity when you give them something they need.
  6. Neither the donor nor the recipient knows each other.
  7. Changing someone’s life to lift them out of dependence on others.

In addition to the willingness and anonymity dimensions above, there are also levels based on the target of someone’s generosity. It could be a plant. It could be an animal. It could be something inanimate like a building. It could be a rich or a poor person. Read through the examples of kindness below and notice which ones make you like the characters more:

  • George and Karen notice their neighbors have a gap in their hedge row and decide to go to the local garden store and buy a new plant to fill it in as a surprise for when the neighbors return from vacation.
  • Diane checks in on her puppy while away and notices on a hidden nanny-cam that her friend Tony spends hours playing and cuddling with her pet outside of the agreed-upon walking and feeding.
  • Kenji fulfills his college’s community service requirement by going to a local nursing home to play board games with the residents.
  • Angela made a commitment when she got her first job as a social worker, that she would set aside money to offer scholarships to her clients’ children, so they could eventually lift their family out of poverty.

Although the introductions are brief, whom did you start liking more? George/Karen, Tony, Kenji, or Angela?

The anonymity, the social class, and the evolutionary development of the recipients seem to be the most important factors for evoking empathy for someone. If you or your characters need to be liked more, try an anonymous bit of generosity for a person truly in need, especially if it has life-changing repercussions.

This is part two of a series of posts on evoking specific emotions in readers. Check back next week for my post on “Cultivating Recognition.”

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