I want a character who has a highly developed ability of empathy. She knows what others are feeling, and often thinking. This story does not have any supernatural or non-hard SF elements, so it needs a real-world backing.

I figure it works like the theory of Somatic empathy which probably uses mirror neuron responses. Starting with a single exceptional trait, Proprioception, I can use that as the basis of the special ability I want.

But I’m always disappointed at stories where some thing is introduced but only used in a narrow way, when in reality it would affect everything.

So what other abilities or affectations might be present in someone who has

  • exceptional proprioception
  • along with “mirroring” to intuitive grasp the body language and microexpressions of others?

For example, I think she would be good at mimicry. That’s just a matter of really matching what she sees rather than internalizing it into her own body model.

I suppose she would write neatly in straight lines without looking at the page. It would be odd (to us) that the perfect lines don’t match the rules marked on the page — that would, in fact, be very difficult for someone to do.

So, what other traits, abilities, quirks, or undesirable side effects might be present in such an individual?

P.S. unlike most story ideas that are just entertaining to discuss, I really am well into this world and have written about 75,000 words already.

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    $\begingroup$ This looks quite like an "idea fishing" question. It might be worth to reword it to something like "what would be natural się effects of this talent?". Also, defining her proprioception, explaining limits you wanted it to have etc would be a good idea. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ You realize that proprioception only relates to one's own body, and has nothing whatsoever to do with awareness of other people's body languages or anything along those lines. Proprioception is simply the same thing as touch, except it's inside the body rather than outside (and it's a different type of nerve ending obviously). Exceptional proprioception could potentially allow you to mirror something you see (slightly) better, but that would mostly depend on developing a control of those muscles. (cont.) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ Just because you see someone with his eye half closed, and you knowing exactly (the exceptional proprioception part) how open your eye is, that barely helps you copy him at all. Put differently, exceptional proprioception is like standing in front of a mirror all the time. That's it. Fairly boring. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ Have you heard of Aspergers? Its actually the opposite of what you are looking for. But the effects it has are so complex, most people can't grasp and even appear sometimes contradicting. Maybe reading about it might give you some inspiration? $\endgroup$
    – Zaibis
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ There's a mounting body of evidence that Asperger's may in fact be partly due to too much empathy as opposed to a lack of it (it can be too much to handle, you've no real emotional filter so you just shutdown). If she has it really strongly, she might be classed as having Asperger's. As someone with the condition myself (along with my father and brother) I saw a lot of myself in many of the answers (a little eerie actually), partially Callum's answer about humor, hypotheticals and devil's advocate (although, as an engineer, those aren't bad skills to have) $\endgroup$
    – Samwise
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 23:16

3 Answers 3


They are going to be fantastic at anything with high level requirements on finger and limb placement, providing they also have the other required characteristics needed for the activity or skill.


This can include careers like surgeons, acrobatic performers, and bomb squad diffusers. A steady hand or foot with the exact right placement will serve them well.


They will be good at mountain climbing, playing piano, drums, accordions, and saxophones (most instruments, really) , and knitting and crocheting.

They will have a higher strike percentage in bowling, and and an almost uncanny knack at acing the 7 - 10 split because once they figure it out, they know exactly the right limb placement and twist of the wrist to use and where in the swing to release the ball.

All the performance dances will be easier for them, including ballet, the Flamenco, and especially break dancing.


If they are athletically inclined, any sport they pursue will benefit from this heightened sense...tennis, slalom skiing, snowboarding, and basketball to name only a few. Anything involving aerial body positioning and balance would be good too: high diving, ski jumping, and any gymnastics event.

Home activity benefits: Things like balancing on precarious perches and ladder work to reach high places when hanging items or cleaning will be easy. They will save on energy as lighting will be less critical for many tasks--they know very well how many steps and at which angle the trash bin is at.

Those are good examples of the physical traits.

Some emotional and social traits involving the high empathy could show up in less obvious ways.

Depending on their base personality, they might be the one everyone goes to for hashing out their issues because they are always so understanding. They seem to get the problem quickly and sense when the person talking to them needs to just vent versus when they truly need advice.

The empath will be good judges of group moods and steer clear of events they don't want to or can't participate in at the time. Having the empath in a group could backfire for folks that are stirring up trouble on the sidelines because the empath is going to see that body language from a mile away and, in recognizing it, simply choose not to respond at all to remove themselves from inappropriate drama before it gets too close.

In situations where they can't understand what a person is saying but are able to view them in person, they will judge the importance of the topic based on their empathic skills, and the majority of the time will correctly guess an appropriate comment or body language to present back without the other party knowing they had no clue what was said. This can back fire on them in ways that vary from harmless--friends giving them a hard time about catching them doing it--to catastrophic--losing a very good friend because of the rare time they guessed wrong at the worst moment and didn't realize it in time.

Due to large group dynamics where there might be too many conflicting, high level emotions abounding, the empath could eventually learn to dial back the ability, find ways to dampen it, or tune it out out altogether. If they do not learn to do that, they could become reclusive. It could be that even when able to control the ability, since doing that can cost energy and effort, they will seclude themselves from social events periodically just for needed rest that others may not need nor understand.


They are likely going to be a social recluse, as their ability to empathize with others will lead many to open up to them, which could rapidly become overwhelming. They might take advantage of this to become a psychologist, although they may not like the idea of listening to people's problems on a daily basis - hence the likelihood of becoming reclusive.

They will often cause frustration in others, as their empathy to all will often likely prompt them to play DevIls advocate, which less empathetic types will not appreciate when all they're trying to do is get their own, self centred point across without wanting to hear the other person's side of things. This depends whether they're empathetic to the person in front of them, or people as a whole.

They will be capable of incredibly convincing arguments, as they will be aware of the motivations lurking behind people's denial of their statements, and with practice will be able to isolate and confront these.

They will be introspective, likely philosophical, as their empathy will show them patterns in people which they will naturally look for in themselves, and draw potentially insightful conclusions from.

They might see society as an aggressor, forcing people's thoughts down certain predefined paths. They may believe most people are sheep - but not blame them for this, as many would - and so attempt to throw a spanner in the works when social norms are hurting someone without their knowledge.

They will probably be pretty funny, as they'll be able to find situations that are comical from the perspective of the person they're talking to, not just from their own subjecive perspective.

They will be masters of hypothetical arguments, making them capable of stunning insights not related to empathy. Empathy is essentially hypothetical at its core, and so generating multiple possible scenarios with various outcomes will become the norm to them. They will probably make an excellent scientist, if they so desire.

Finally, they will probably be full of self doubt, as they will see the many irrational thought patterns exhibited by others, and constantly worry that they themselves fall into these patterns (this may force them down a hyper-rational route, vetting everything they believe). They may have anxiety issues, due to the overwhelming nature of empathizing with all, and it's plausible that they'd require some sort of character arc to deal with this.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 on the humor aspect. The very reason humor is successful is our ability to relate to the topic... They will be able to relate very well $\endgroup$
    – N2ition
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 15:55

Somehow your character can tune her mind status with the one of another person.

In a 1 to 1 context this can lead to some "issues":

  • potential lack of situational awareness: well, it happens that one is angry or frightened and neglects small but important things. Imagine this happening to your character just because the guy next to her is mad at somebody, and she "embodies" his mental state.
  • altered physical state: very often to a mental state correspond an altered physical state. I.e. consider what would happen to your character in the vicinity of a sexually aroused person. She could get aroused, too. Maybe this can come useful to spot sexual offenders, or can get messy when addressed to the wrong person.

Things become even worse in a 1 to many context: if she cannot filter the interaction with mental states (imagine how difficult is to listen to a friend when he is talking in crowded bar, with the worsening factor that people cannot "talk louder" with their mental states), she will be simply drowned in the salad of emotions coming from the crowd. This can be avoided only in particular situations, like concerts, political gatherings, etc. where the mental status of the crowd is more or less biased in a given direction.

  • $\begingroup$ Good ideas, thanks. Taking on rather than just knowing the mental state: nice idea if that happens occasionally for strong upsetting emotions. I actually touched on this already, she really feels her BFF’s pain when the latter is having anxiety over a relationship. I suppose that can happen with rage, etc. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ «consider what would happen to your character in the vicinity of a sexually aroused person.» oh, I have. She discovers this early in the novel. It's turning into a key motivation for how the char got into a particular situation. In fact, that’s what I was working on today. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ Filtering/crowds: since it's keyed by vision, that's less of a problem. But I can see it being an issue while mingling at a party. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Oct 18, 2017 at 10:29

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