Post NaNoWriMo World Building  part 2 – Empaths and Healers #amwriting

Today we continue our discussion of extraordinary powers in a fantasy environment. We are diving into empathic abilities such as telepathy and empathic healing.

How the written universe works magic and superpowers1Our universe is a mysterious, stunning place. One puzzle that has occupied scientists for decades is the observable fact that our universe has more matter and energy than it should.

Wikipedia says: In physical cosmology and astronomydark energy is an unknown form of energy that affects the universe on the largest scales. The first observational evidence for its existence came from measurements of supernovas, which showed that the universe does not expand at a constant rate; rather, the universe’s expansion is accelerating. [1]

In other words, something we can’t see or measure is out there, shaping our known universe. For lack of a better term, scientists refer to it as “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

A common trope of fantasy and sometimes sci-fi is telepathy. Sci-fi novels will sometimes feature characters with telepathic gifts—the ability to read minds.

Fantasy takes telepathy one step further. It explores giving certain people the ability to manipulate healing on a cellular level, as well as reading minds and manipulating behaviors. Sometimes characters have a gift of prophecy.

This force is a trope that is often called empathy. It is the dark energy of a fantasy universe.

According to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

Telepathy (from the Greek τῆλε, tele meaning “distant” and πάθος/-πάθεια, pathos or -patheia meaning “feelingperceptionpassionafflictionexperience“) is the purported vicarious transmission of information from one person’s mind to another’s without using any known human sensory channels or physical interaction. The term was first coined in 1882 by the classical scholar Frederic W. H. Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), and has remained more popular than the earlier expression thought-transference.

Telepathy experiments have historically been criticized for a lack of proper controls and repeatability. There is no good evidence that telepathy exists, and the topic is generally considered by the scientific community to be pseudoscience. [2]

588px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Crystal_BallSince mainstream science still pooh-poohs its existence, telepathy and empathic abilities are whatever we who write books decide they are. I choose to see telepathy as an extension of the dark energy that scientists admit is all around us. Some people can tap into it, but others can’t.

As I showed in the previous post, rules create limitations, requiring the characters to work harder. We care more about their struggle. But there is a more obvious reason. When we have rules, we can write a narrative without inadvertent contradictions.

What empathic gift does your character have: emotion reading, mind reading, healing, or foresight? How common or rare is this gift?

How did they discover they had an empathic gift? What can they do with it?

Conversely, what can they NOT do with it?

  • Is there formal training for gifts like theirs?
  • What happens to people who use their empathy to abuse others?
  • Has society made laws regulating how empaths are trained and controlled?

Now, let’s talk about the characters themselves. What are their views of how their talents should be used?

  • How important is human life?
  • How is using their talent to commit murder punished?
  • How do they view betrayal, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice?
  • What effect does drunkenness have on their gift?
  • What is their personal moral code?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
  • How many people can they control at one time?
  • What actions are seen as crimes by society?
  • How are they discovered, and what is the punishment?
  • Who tries and convicts empaths who go rogue?

This brings me to the final concept we must consider about personal power. What restrains an empath from seizing power?

Meriko's Eyes digital art by cjjasp © 2015If a real person had the kind of power that our fictional empaths wield, we would hope they were noble, compassionate, and above all, respectful of other people’s wish for privacy. We would want them to be principled, a person who would never rummage in people’s minds uninvited.

That is a critical plot point in my work. One way I have chosen to prevent unprincipled empaths from using their powers against my heroes, even the non-empaths, is to have their education involve learning how to raise barriers against telepathic attacks.

We need to talk about self-defense. Can healers in your universe use swords or other melee weapons or firearms? In my universe, healers on the side of good are unable to kill. Sleep is a spell they use against a predatory animal or an assailant.

I had to consider how close they might have to be to an enemy for the spell to work. The range varies with the strength of the individual. Also, the length of time they can render an aggressor unconscious varies with their power.

Now, we come to the flip side. If an empath has gone rogue, what is their kryptonite? For the heroes to prevail, there must be a weakness, a way to counteract or cut an enemy off from their powers.

In my written world, they have an herb – silf – that blocks mages and healers from sensing their gifts. In Mountains of the Moon, silf is used against the heroes, raising the tension.

How does empathic healing work in your world?

  • What spells and abilities do healers have?
  • Are they better at healing animals than people, or vice versa?

Some good abilities for people with healing gifts might be anesthetic—the ability to ease pain or put a patient to sleep.

In your universe, how does empathic healing work? A story is more believable when people have varying degrees of fighting skills. The same is true with magic and empathy. This is why I designed my system so that some can do more healing than others.

magicHow will you describe it when they are healing on a cellular level? Some authors describe the act of healing as evil-looking lights changing to a healthier color. Others describe healing as angry-looking threads that must be untangled. Still other authors describe it as a feeling of evil that must be smoothed away.

Or, you don’t have to be too descriptive. It’s up to you.

What does healing cost the healer? Does it exhaust them? Does some of the healing magic come from the patient? Does the patient or healer (or both) need to sleep afterward?

Other fantasy authors have contemplated and employed these questions of logic in their work.

An important thing to ask your story is this: can empaths also use battle magic? And can battle mages also be healers? Why or why not?

If you make rules and then choose to have one character who is an exception, why is the exception possible?

magicAs a younger reader, I gravitated to fantasy books that feature telepathy, healing, and magic. Two series with well-designed magic and empathic systems are:

Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar Book 1) by Mercedes Lackey (3-book series, with other books set in that world.)

Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (book one of a 22-book series)


[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dark energy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed December 13, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Telepathy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed December 13, 2022).

Image: The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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