What’s Better in a Main Character: Empathy or Sociopathy?

(Originally published online with Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press “Rhizomatic Ideas”)

by David M. Hoenig


Life, the passage of day and night, even stars and galaxies, all move in cycles.  So, too, apparently, does the nature of main characters in film and literature.  

As a writer, I generally subscribe to Ernest Hemingway’s admonishment: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”  And while, by convention, we refer to our protagonists as ‘main characters’, Hemingway’s point is something to strive for.  Like most of us, I tend to conceptualize the people in my stories by way of their psychology, and especially design them around flaws and strengths.  If there’s any rule about character creation, it would be to make them compelling.  Not necessarily likable, lovable, or even someone we can identify with, but to make them someone we want to read about, or watch in action.

I was struck the other night, watching the third Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay (part 1) on video, by how much Jennifer Lawrence brought to the role of Katniss Everdeen in each movie of the franchise.  I found myself tearing up when (spoiler alert) she fell to her knees after the bombing of the hospital in District 8, weeping over the murder of wounded in a spiteful attack by the Capital.  I asked myself why that was.  When I did so, it reminded me of similar moments in earlier films, like when she volunteered for her sister at the Reaping in the first movie, and then the reason crystallized for me as if by magic.

Katniss Everdeen is an incredibly empathetic individual, and Ms. Lawrence portrays that with such amazing skill that she brings me right along with her.  The character is so compelling for me precisely because she feels personal distress when things happen to others whom she cares about.

When I considered all this objectively, outside of the ‘feels’ in which the author, Suzanne Collins, and Ms. Lawrence kicked me, I thought of other characters whose empathy made me feel like I’d been a part of the story.  Tris Prior of the Divergent series is similar–she would rather risk her own life than see others abused.  The title character of the original Star Trek episode “The Empath” literally was being tested to see if her instinct to heal others through experiencing their pain was more powerful than her own self-preservation.  Similarly, the title character of the movie “Powder” was incredibly empathetic to others, even as he was being treated cruelly, and that, too, made me feel.

On the other hand, there has been a trend in books and movies which explore action and violence to have ‘heroic’ main characters who seem completely unaffected by the killing of multiple ‘bad guys’, except insofar as they provide a lead-up to some snarky one-liner.  While these characters are far less compelling for me, there is no doubt that audiences and readers become huge fans of them.  Witness a sixth movie planned in the “Die Hard” series following a ‘yippee ki yay, MF’ taunt by John McClain way back in the first movie, and nary a concern by him over the deaths of so many ‘bad guys’ in gruesome ways over the past five films  No post-traumatic stress involved for Officer McClain, just ‘get the job done and don’t worry about it’ because ‘they deserved what they got’.  

Villains or anti-heroes are certainly more effective if they’re not slaves to a conscience, but the tendency for heroes to be flippant about the costly damage they cause in the course of their ‘jobs’ seems concerning to me if readers and audiences are actually identifying with such characters rather than just enjoying the ride along with them.  And yet, there is no denying the mass appeal for action heroes who never appear ‘weak’ in the face of adversity.

For writers, both sociopathic and empathetic characters offer unique traits to draw in readers and tell our stories.  I have found one of the best guidelines to pay attention to when considering choices for personalities in my own writing was given by Ray Bradbury: “Create a character with an obsession, then follow.”


Dark Horizons, Dark of the Moon Up for B&N Bookstore Distribution — jamesdorrwriter

This is encouraging news! Charles P. Zaglanis of Elder Signs Press announced today via Facebook: “Barnes & Noble wants multiple copies of DARK HORIZONS in all its stores chain-wide.” Elder Signs Press, we may remember, will also be publishing my upcoming novel-in-stories, TOMBS: A CHRONICLE OF LATTER-DAY TIMES OF EARTH, in spring-summer next year (cf. […]

via Dark Horizons, Dark of the Moon Up for B&N Bookstore Distribution — jamesdorrwriter

Pre-kickstarter fundraiser!

Source: Pre-kickstarter fundraiser!


Check it out!  Blog interview of me about my story “Bridge Out” and my writing background in preparation for Clash of the Titles anthology!

Interview with David M. Hoenig, M.D.

David M. Hoenig, MD- Author

Published Stories by David M. Hoenig:

(Also, see David’s Amazon Author webpage here !)


You Could Count On That … Nebula Rift Magazine –  Now, also to Digital Fiction Publishing here!

Freedom Is Not Free … Nebula Rift Magazine- Now also to Flametree Publishing in beautiful hardback copy here!

Frail Vessel … Nebula Rift Magazine-

“Of Kings, Queens, And Knaves”… The King In Yellow Anthology (Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press)- free, available through Litho Reader App on iphone/ipad platforms- https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152823445016836&set=gm.473101452845821&type=1  (Free)  **UPDATE: Also, now available for free here !

“Asteroid Christmas”… Warlords of the Asteroid Belt anthology (Rogue Planet/Horrified Press)- Warlords Of The Asteroid Belt Anthology

“Mother Lode”… dark sci fi, in Dark Horizons, published by Charles P. Zaglanis- here, on amazon!


“The Boy Who Was A Snow Owl”, “Rough Adolescence”, “Salted Earth” … Growing Pains Anthology (Horrified Press/Sinister Saints)-  ‘Growing Pains’ Anthology

Ride Into Legend  … Winner, Pony Express Weird Wild West Fiction Contest (Espec Books)- (Free)

Madness Is In The Eye Of The Beholder … 3rd Place Winner, Freaky Flash Fiction Contest (Morning Rain Publishing)  (Free)— now also to Horrified Press

 ‘X2’ Anthology  … “Cateye Gleaming In The Dark” in ‘X2’ Anthology of weird stories- now also to Cast of Wonders!

My Boy … Dark Chapters Press (August Fiction Contest Winner 8/2015)  (Free)

Flashes of Darkness Halloween Special 2015 … Dark Chapters Press anthology – my story in that collection is “Number One Arms Dealer”

Approximations That Gradually Approach The Truth … Steampunk meets cosmic horror in Boston- published in The Horror Zine, Spring 2016

Fugitives … “Back To The Sea”, “The Boy Who Cried”, “The Munchkin G-OZ-ette”

Over There … Via Dark Chapters Press (free)

Nine Tenths… in Tales from the Witch’s Cauldron

Pruning The Garden… Deadman’s Tome (free!)

North by Due North… Deadman’s Tome (free!)

More Tales From The Blue Gonk Cafe… Horrified Press/Thirteen O’Clock Press: multiple flash fiction pieces as told by storytellers at the Blue Gonk Cafe.   Mine: Rude Awakenings, Cornucopia, More the Idea than the Reality, Precipice, and The Day After the Emperor’s New Clothes 🙂

In A Flash… Sinister Saints/Horrified press: 4 flash fiction pieces: “Touchy Feely Freshman Bullshit”, “Goth Girl Overdrive”, “Spelling Bee”, and “Grown Up Young”

Aces and Kings… Atlantean Press “A Terrible Thing” Anthology


Deva Rising …. Drunk Monkeys Literary  (Free)

The Poem As Computer Program …. Rhizomatic Ideas, Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press  (Free)

“1001 Arabian Nights and the Woman-as-Intellect”… The Arabian Nights Anthology,  (Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press)- free, available through Lithomobilus App on iphone/ipad platforms- https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152823445016836&set=gm.473101452845821&type=1  — now here!

Empathy Or Sociopathy …. Rhizomatic Ideas, Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press  (Free)

“The Nurse”…  Tells the story of the nurse in Wilkie Collins’ famous, seminal detective novel about women’s rights in Victorian England, “Woman in White”.   An incidental character of WiW, this tale explores her background and the risks of her life and identity as a transgender person and how her life intersects with those of the main characters of the novel.  Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press (Lithomobilus/Litho Reader- Free ipad/iphone app and free content)— now here!

No Answer In The Dark… to Centum Publishing “100 voices”

No Atheist… to “Burger Van”, published by Michael Bray (Free for download, though donations to the International Animal Rescue organization is suggested)

Always Look On The Bright Side… Flash Fiction Magazine

The Body Horror Book…. Medical Horror… Oscillate Wildly Press-


Fall Edition of ‘The Horror Zine’

November 2015 “Editor’s Pick” Poet, The Horror Zine  (Free)

Universal As Hydrogen- Yellow Chair Review (on mourning, reflection, and the Day of the Dead)- 11/1/15 (FREE)

The Horror Zone Summer 2016 – 3 poems; 1 sestina, 2 rondeau (available via Amazon in print or epub)

“The State of the Art of War Against Entropy” – accepted, to the ‘Art of War’ anthology of Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press (Lithomobilus/Litho Reader- Free ipad/iphone app and free content): Art of War principle applied to the fight against cancer (Free on Litho Reader), or here

“He Paints for Dilettantes and One Connoisseur” – accepted to the ‘Study in Scarlet’ anthology of Nonbinary Review/Zoetic Press- here

3 poems: “Ba-Doom, Ba-doom”, “The Traveler and the Nameless Mists”, and “The 6-6-6 Sestina”, in Mightier than the Sword anthology, Horrified Press

“The Loneliest Number”- in Alone anthology, Horrified Press

“Jack Out Of The Box”, “Jack And Jill, Redux”- in Monsters Among Us – Oscillate Press Anthology


https://www.spreaker.com/embed/player/standard?episode_id=9231349&autoplay=false“>Interview with David on Deadman’s Tome August, 2016


Bridge Out… to Clash of the Titles anthology

Power of a Quaint Notion… to Dark Chapters Press “A to Z” anthology

Thy Self, Thy Enemy… to Dark Chapters Press “Edge of Darkness” anthology

Technotheosis… to Dark Chapters Press “Kids 2” anthology

Key To Heaven… TAANSTAFL Press- “Enter the Aftermath” Anthology

A Gaunt Silence Within Snowy Woods… Ariel Chart