Why I’ve Chosen Not to Handwave: The fictional galaxy in which this humanoid species (I’ll refer to them as Empaths from here on out) lives is protected by a space-faring military/law-enforcing legion of mostly humans (descendants of ‘Terrans’) with a healthy dash of various alien species mixed in. Human civilians, and non-civilians, have spread throughout several systems from the planet that they colonized long ago after leaving Earth and I figure it’s a given that a good number of them would’ve taken it upon themselves to figure out how and why their ‘neighbors’ work by now.

Even after considering this, I might’ve just handwaved the odd markings of the Empaths, referring to them in a completely offhanded, romantic sense rather than getting technical about it at all, but the focus of these stories is crews in the aforementioned legion and I intend to make members of many of the alien species that I’ve conceived a part of these crews. One crew-member that I came up with is half human, half-Empath and, having already decided that the Empaths would have teardrop shaped markings beneath their eyes, I had to wonder if he would too.

At first, I thought that maybe his would just be fainter than the bold markings that full blooded empaths have, but then it occurred to me that the teardrops could be linked to the empathic abilities of this species. So, let’s say that a rare few Empaths are born without the ability to sense the emotions of other beings (this would be considered a very rare birth defect): they wouldn’t have the teardrop markings. The half breed has inherited empathic abilities from his Empath parent, though, so he has the markings and they are just as bold as those of full blooded Empaths, because he has them.

My Question: I considered that the abilities of the Empath species might be the result of a ‘xeno-chemical’ (?), but I have no idea how or why this chemical (which may be produced by their brains or come from a unique organ?) would create teardrop shaped markings on the faces of these aliens. All answers are welcome, be they musings or lectures. I am, however, hoping for a biological explanation for these markings.

Further Info on Empaths: The teardrop markings are bold black; I haven’t decided yet how many I want each Empath to have or if the number will vary (like freckles), but I am fairly certain that they will be beneath the outer edge of both eyes, most likely side by side, as opposed to one beneath another. Concerning the empathic abilities of these aliens, the vast majority can clearly read emotions when touching another sentient being and vaguely sense them when their proximity is close. The most sensitive among them can clearly read emotions through close proximity and vaguely sense them from, say, two feet away. They are raised to suppress their ability to sense emotions by close proximity (shut it out, like meditating) and avoid physical contact with one another, except in situations dictated by tradition - It would be considered very bad manners to ask someone standing right next to you at an Empath party why they’re suddenly angry if you didn’t notice the man’s ex-girlfriend just walk in with another guy and he knows he didn’t let it show on his face, and so on.

Clarification: To those that have suggested tattoos; I never intended for the teardrop markings to be anything other than natural. I apologize for not making this clearer when I originally posted this question and, yes, I realize that tattoos are the simplest explanation, but, no matter what decision I come to regarding these markings, I will be sticking to the ‘fact’ that the Empaths are born with them. Nevertheless, thank you for taking a whack at it.

  • $\begingroup$ Heh. Have you read The Sirens of Titan by Vonnegut? $\endgroup$
    – puppetsock
    Nov 15, 2019 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @puppetsock - I have not. $\endgroup$
    – MooNieu
    Nov 15, 2019 at 21:39

3 Answers 3


My take on this situation: the ‘teardrop’ is an essential, black, teardrop-shaped organ located on the Empath’s face.

You could have the Empath have thinner skin, allowing the teardrop’s unique colour to be visible on its face as markings.

The thinner skin could be somewhat permeable, like a frog’s, allowing fluids to blend into the bloodstream. This is how the Empaths can sense emotion; the chemicals contained in sweat are absorbed into the bloodstream before being brought back to the Teardrop, which analyzes the contents like a human nose and sends signals up to the Empath’s brain. Although they could absorb/detect the chemicals from the air, it would not be as intense as from direct contact, allowing your Empaths to keep some degree of privacy when avoiding touch.

The detection of emotions through a sense of smell is something that us humans have already replicated, with an electronic nose capable of smelling sweat and analyzing it for signs of stress. It detects signs of Cortisol and adrenaline hormone compounds, and can analyze whether the sweat is caused by stress. This means that having an organ specifically for analyzing the chemical outputs and emotions from sweat is not improbable, and can be extended beyond these two chemicals to include other potential emotions.

The downside of the thin, breathable skin is having the Empaths be highly susceptible to toxins in the air and any liquids, as these would enter the bloodstream. As an example, common pesticides sprayed onto a frog is capable of killing it within 1 hour to 7 days, meaning Empaths with thin-skin would need full-body suits to protect them from toxic chemicals. They would also probably hate to hear others call them ‘thin skinned’.

If you would rather not have them be thin-skinned, an alternative is to have the teardrops instead be a second analyzer beside the nose, that analyzes the chemicals from what the Empath smells and translates any hormonal chemicals into a sense of emotion. This way, instead of ‘i feel you’, your Empaths can also empathize by saying ‘I smell you’. It would also mean that you could have Empaths be even more similar to humans, with only some small cosmetic features and the teardrop being different (and making a cross Empath breed more likely).

Hope this helps!

  • $\begingroup$ So, they would only ever have one marking? And how vulnerable would the thin skin make them beyond the weakness to airborne toxins? Would it look strange compared to human skin? Like veins would be more prominent? $\endgroup$
    – MooNieu
    Nov 15, 2019 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @P.M.B. Of course you can have as many markings as wanted, I only talk about one teardrop, but you could explain two as being pure-breed (much better sensing capabilities) versus one as being half-breed (less sensing). $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Nov 15, 2019 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ @P.M.B. the weakness to airborne toxins would be particularly severe, to draw a parallel, common frogs can be killed by pesticides in as little as an hour. How well they can handle toxins would be based on how much of their skin is thin, although the weakness to toxin can be remedied by either making the Empaths only have the skin on certain parts of their body, eg. the sexually related organs, the hands, and the face. $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Nov 15, 2019 at 22:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @P.M.B. And the thin skin would definitely make the veins more prominent than in humans, making it easier to spot an Empath. This would mean that a half-breed Empath-human would have an easier time fitting in than pure-breeds, if you decide to employ thin-skin $\endgroup$
    – Enthu5ed
    Nov 15, 2019 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ Eh, still undecided. But, this is the only answer so far that suggests a biological explanation, which was what I was hoping for. $\endgroup$
    – MooNieu
    Nov 15, 2019 at 22:21

They are tattoos.

This is the simplest explanation. The marks have cultural significance for the empath race and the tattoos are added as each individual achieves life goals. Your crew members are young and probably have only one or two. An elder of this race might have the tears circumferentially around her eyes.

As regards why a tear - as they become the new person that they now are, the individual sheds a tear for the passing of the person that they were.


I know its a little off from your original concept but if I were building a universe with something like that in it I would actually make it a purposeful mark, a tattoo of some description.
If you wanted the species to be a repressed one then it would have been forced upon them by others wanting to identify their kind at a distance. If not then it would be something they do themselves.

You do not seem to want a persecuted race so I will assume that it was willing from here on out.

So an empath has the ability to passively detect emotions just as a facet of being more sensitive to all the things humans are to do with emotion, this can be refined with knowledge of different situations and generally improves with age, touch allows direct access to subconscious sensing of heartbeat, temperature changes etc. which makes the reading clearer. If an empath wants to actively use their abilities actively they need props and things to trigger emotional responses to measure their subjects difference to baselines etc. in the past this would have been actual props, pictures etc. but as time has advanced they somehow settled on the teardrop shape around the eyes, each empath is different and does not want to mess up their abilities so careful thought is given to where these marks should be and it is tested before making it permanent. This also means that sensing the emotions of a blind person would be more difficult, requiring direct touch and other emotional stimuli.

Some empaths find that only one is sufficient, others find more are needed for what they are doing and the positioning (within the predefined constraints) is highly personal with millimeters making all the difference in the world. Traditional empath tattooists do not do anything else other than this and those tattooists are highly revered in empath society.

An empath with no tattoos would be seen as a strange empath because they do not want to enhance their natural ability and therefore be a rarity. Similarly, an empath with too many is either trying too hard or trying to make up for a botched tattoo that actually deminished their ability. Some markings could probably be used by many generations of the same family due to face structure etc. How much of this is kept secret from the other races is a point to be considered. This also has the advantage that an empath could go without notice in other societies and someone could try to impersonate an empath.

Your half-blood could be trying out a first tattoo location or maybe with more to counteract his diminished ability.

You could go any way with all of this but my personal leaning would be that all empaths know of a legend that one day they will gain the ability to fully read minds and so there is no stigma on the tattoos, it would just be seen as trying to enhance ones ability to the point of actual mind reading but there is a divergence in "religious" text where a decreasing amount of empaths interpret it as that the mind reader would bear the the tears as marks on their soul, meaning that the mind reader would have no need of marks to help them. The vast majority interpret these texts as that the mind reader will bear the tears to mark their soul meaning that the mind reader would have tears on them for sure and it would mark them as one with the soul of a mind reader. The reason most believe the second interpretation would be that there is a clear link with having tears and being better able to interpret emotions.
I would then have the half-blood with a tattoo that he is testing the location of but he cannot decide and keeps changing it because it actually interferes with his abilities, there would be a lot of internal conflict because all he knows is that he wants to fit in with empath society but he does not want to mess up his abilities. Eventually he might get in contact with a member of the other "religious" group and try without the tattoos eventually to find that he can actually read minds.

Again, I know this is a little divergent but that is what I would do because it gives so many social hooks and potential plot points.

I generally tend to be a game master for a sci-fi role-play game and this kind of thing is the path I would go down to give myself the largest amount of mileage for a particular idea but it might not be appropriate for your purposes.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Because this sounds like a fascinating idea. There’s something I don’t understand, though: You’re saying that the purpose of these tattoos would be to evoke a response from others? Why would they want to use their abilities this way? As practice? And why would the positioning of the tear be so important? If it’s a little further to the left, the effect would be different on the target? $\endgroup$
    – MooNieu
    Nov 15, 2019 at 21:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .