Character Introduction: The Empath

Character Introduction: The Empath

As I chip away at the final book in the trilogy, telling the end of a story I started more than ten years ago, my mind drifts back to the days when the Mystic Island was nothing but a couple of wispy ideas. I don’t think I’ve devoted enough time to discussing the conception and creation of this project. Since the second book will soon be in your hands, I feel it’s time to remedy that.

Island of Lost Forevers started as a dream I carried into waking, one of the first I decided to turn into a novel. The more I honed in on that idea, trying to determine the details that formed a full picture, the more the main character took shape.

Catilen Taylor is not the type of character I usually write. I’d almost describe her as ‘fluffy.’ While there are dark things in her past, they don’t bog her down. She flits through life with a certain confidence. There’s always a smile on her lips and she’s always ready with a witty comeback. She’s something of a loner; she doesn’t need people in her life. She’s content with her books and studies. The socialization that comes with her job as a literary professor is fulfilling enough.

But every character needs a motivation, of course, or they wouldn’t be compelling. Catilen’s ultimate desire is tied closely to the one thing she cannot control; she was born with the ability to sense the emotions of others.

Empathy isn’t an uncommon trait. It features in a lot of fantasy fiction and even sometimes sci-fi. My first encounter with Empathy was probably Counselor Deanna Troi, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. (There’s even a nod to this in the book when Catilen discusses her mother’s position as a counselor). Deanna Troi used her empathic abilities to help people with everything from emotional trauma to diplomatic negotiations. It seems a common theme among empathic characters that they want to help everyone around them. One of my favourite empathic characters is Amberdrake from Mercedes Lackey’s Mage Wars trilogy. He is a sort of counselor in his own right and uses his empathic abilities to sense the true needs of his clients so he can properly fulfill them.

Since Catilen’s empathy fast became the center of the story’s focus, I decided to go a different route. Rather than embracing her empathy, Catilen has attempted to reject it. Rather than a gift she uses to help others, she regards it as a curse. She has learned how to contain it, so that she can live with it, while hoping to conceal it from the rest of the world. Catilen grew up in an environment where ‘different’ was regarded as ‘frightening’ and ‘wrong.’ (Sound familiar?) She doesn’t trust opening herself enough to make use of her abilities.

Personally, the stories I find most interesting and compelling focus on a personal journey, one where the character has to discover the truth about themselves, or accept it, before they can fulfill their quest or desire. Catilen’s journey requires her to look her abilities in the eye and test them to their limits.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of writing Catilen’s journey was portraying her empathy. Many fantasy readers understand what a writer means when they say ’empathic,’ but I felt it would be lazy to rely on that innate knowledge of the genre. I wanted Catilen’s empathy to pop off the page. After all, she often deals with the emotions of others on top of her own. Think back to the last time you found yourself in emotional crisis; it’s hard enough wrangling your own emotional rollercoaster without adding someone else’s to it!

To that end, I focused on two aspects while portraying Catilen’s empathy. The first was her perception of the emotional states of others. I needed to make it clear that she wasn’t just observing body language, but actually experiencing the same emotions. Rather than noting the press of an angry person’s lips, for example, Catilen might feel a fire in her chest. And instead of noting the wringing of an anxious person’s hands, Catilen’s stomach might turn in knots.

The second aspect of Catilen’s empathy involves her reaction to these, often unwanted, sensations. First she must identify the source as external. Then she must decide a course of action; whether she will try to help its owner through the situation, or try to block it and go on with her day. The farther she travels on her journey, the more she must stretch her secondary senses and the more complex her interaction with that ability becomes.

Ultimately, Catilen’s empathy made her one of the most colourful characters I’ve ever written. It certainly made some of her perspectives unique. It was a chance to stretch my writing muscles and I consider it a successful experiment. If you’d like to learn more about Catilen, her abilities and her journey, you can read the first three chapters of Island of Lost Forevers here on the site, or on Wattpad (where you can also vote if you enjoy them). And if you’d like to purchase the book, you can find the links here.

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