Writers in the Storm

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October 19, 2020

Compassion Fatigue: Is it Relevant for Your Characters?

By Becca Puglisi

We know the importance of making our characters authentic, believable, and memorable for readers. But relevance is important, too, because it makes them relatable. Readers see characters who are facing the same issues they’re facing or dealing with the same struggles they’re dealing with, and a bond is formed.

As an example, look at To Kill a Mockingbird. It was written in 1960, but this story about children navigating a racially-charged culture that is altering their safe and comfortable world is still relevant to us almost 50 years later.

Are your characters relevant?

Relevance in your stories is about finding an element for your character or story that your reader can relate to in the real world. It might be heavy (a theme, social or political issue, moral quandary, or mental obstacle) or minor (a hobby or interest, dominant character trait, or common missing human need). Either can be effective. And if you can come up with a common thread that hasn’t been used a million times, that’s always a plus.

To that end, I’d like to share a real-life malady I’ve recently learned about that may be incredibly relevant to readers today.

Introducing "Compassion Fatigue"

When Angela and I were writing our latest thesaurus on occupations, we were researching the nursing career and stumbled over a term we’d never heard before: compassion fatigue. It’s defined as:

Exhaustion, emotional withdrawal, apathy, or indifference experienced by those who have been exposed to repeated trauma, tragedy, and appeals for assistance

This condition is all-to-common in occupations where people are constantly exposed to trauma (e.g. first responders, social workers, journalists, therapists, animal welfare workers, etc.) The frequent exposure to horrible events inherent in these jobs leads to a necessary psychological withdrawal as these workers try to distance themselves from what they’re seeing. While a certain level of withdrawal is healthy, serious cases can lead to problems on the job, relationship conflict, and debilitating mental conditions like PTSD.

Well, you might think, that’s interesting, but my character doesn’t have that kind of job.

Due to the 24-hour cycle of social media and news networks, compassion fatigue is becoming much more widespread. The public’s constant exposure to the suffering of others—sometimes on a hard-to-fathom scale—is taking its toll.

Compassion fatigue presents with the following symptoms:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion 
  • Moodiness
  • Increased apathy
  • Lack of focus
  • Weight loss
  • Insomnia
  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Isolation
  • Feeling hopeless or powerless
  • Loss of interest in things that once brought joy
  • Self-blame (for not doing more)
  • Decreased efficiency at work
  • Denial

This should give you an idea of how detrimental compassion fatigue can be. You may even recognize some of these symptoms in yourself as you navigate the constant barrage of news coverage. This malady is becoming more common, and therefore more relevant, for today’s readers. As such, it might be something that could work in your story, but as with any real physical or emotional affliction, it needs to be handled responsibly and thoughtfully.

Questions to help you decide:

1. Does It Fit for My Character?

The first consideration is whether or not compassion fatigue actually works for your character. We’ve all seen the results of authors trying to force certain habits, personality traits, or emotional responses onto their cast members. The inauthenticity is almost unbearable, leading to a disconnect with readers.

As with any other aspect of characterization, you have to do your homework and make sure it makes sense for the character. Compassion fatigue might be a reasonable outcome for someone who…

  • works in a job where trauma and tragedy are frequent.
  • lives, works, or volunteers in a war zone or area of high crime.
  • is a caregiver to a chronically or terminally ill loved one.
  • consistently sees trauma second-hand (on the news, social media, etc.).
  • is highly empathetic and compassionate to begin with.

Basically, if your character consistently witnesses circumstances that naturally arouse their empathy but they’re unable to do anything about those situations, they’re at high risk for compassion fatigue. If this is the case for your character, it may be something that can be written into your story.

2. Have I Done My Research?

Compassion fatigue is a real ailment and, like any real-life element, it needs to be represented accurately. If you’ve suffered with this condition, you’ll have firsthand experience and it will be easier to write. If you haven’t, get to work researching.

  • Find people who have dealt with it and talk to them.
  • Read medical journals and legitimate sources.
  • Join discussion groups and online communities.

Gather the information you need so you can write this condition accurately and realistically for your character.

3. Does It Serve My Story?

Like any physical or mental ailment, compassion fatigue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It will have far-reaching effects on your character that will impact your story, so it should only be included if those effects serve your purposes. Here are a few natural outcomes of compassion fatigue that might do your story some good:

  • It Provides Organic Conflict Options. Insomnia, lack of focus, moodiness—the symptoms of compassion fatigue are going to cause problems for your character at work. Likewise, increased apathy and withdrawal will make it harder for him or her to connect with loved ones. Good stories require conflict in every scene, and compassion fatigue can provide that conflict at home, on the job, and everywhere in between.
  • It Impacts Human Needs.Basic human needs are universal to everyone. They’re important to us as authors because when one of them is threatened or removed, it becomes a motivator, driving the choices and actions for your character. Compassion fatigue can impact many of these needs. So whether you need your character to make a monumental error, hit rock bottom, or recognize their need for change, it can be used to position them exactly where you want them.
  • It Contributes to Character Arc. What changes does your character have to make in order to grow and evolve by the end of the story? Maybe she needs to learn that she is as important as the people she serves, and she needs to take better care of herself. This might relate back to a wounding event she’ll need to finally confront and deal with—one where she was devalued or mistreated in some way. If compassion fatigue can tie into any of this, it will make it easier for you to map out that arc.

Final Thoughts

Compassion fatigue is just one example of an element that could provide a sense of relevance for your readers. The options for writing stories that feel very “now” are endless.

 If you can find that one element to connect your character with today’s reader, it won’t matter how different they are in gender, age, race, time period, or geographic location. It will be enough to start that empathy bond that can carry readers all the way through the story to make sure the character comes out okay.

What’s relevant about the story you’re writing? Or have you read a book recently that resonated with you because it felt very now or current? Please share it with us down in the comments!

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About Becca

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 500,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.

13 comments on “Compassion Fatigue: Is it Relevant for Your Characters?”

  1. One of my characters has a chronic illness - but she doesn't whine about it. She deals with it in daily life and how it affects her dreams and aspirations - and you see how it affects others, and how some people don't believe her.

    It's tricky getting the balance right - between focusing too much on the illness and not making it have the appropriate weight on the story choices. And also not boring the reader by being repetitious. I have several real-world models, and test what happens against what I know.

    1. Ugh. Chronic illness has become so common—or maybe it always was, and we're just now hearing about it thanks to social media. This is definitely something that many readers can relate to. And you're right about needing to find that balance. It's perfect, though, that you're running your work by people in the trenches. That's the way best way to ensure that you're representing that element well.

      1. It has always been common - up until the Baby Boomer generation when things like penicillin were invented, and sterile operating rooms, and X-rays.

        So we've had a generation with vaccines - so our children survive far more often than not - and the 'health' culture makes it a moral virtue to run.

        If you look further back - the Brontës all died young, and probably of 'consumption' (TB) - literature skirted around illness and early death, but the effects were ever present: widows and orphans, children left with family (Jane Eyre), The Wife of Bath on her 7th (?) husband... There was no need - and no point because there were few things they could DO about it - of discussing the illnesses in characters, just the consequences.

        So, in some sense, I'm in a pristine field, where disability and chronic illness are NEW problems, and diversity is having a hard time remembering to include the disabled.

        I just wish I were faster - there is a lot to be said. Instead, I'm lovingly polishing one of the few novels where, as one of my reviewers said, "I realized that I couldn't think of any book I'd read, recently, involving a character with a disability or chronic illness – a significant hole in terms of diversity."

  2. Fascinating. It never occurred to me to use compassion fatigue in a story. This can ramp up a lot of conflict.

    I can see how this is a problem for several occupations.

    I spoke with a Forensic psychologist while researching the characteristics of a psychopath to be sure I had a good understanding of general traits and personality.

    After pondering what she told me I asked how many people in her line of work end up with PTSD. Her answer was "All of us do."

    1. Wow. The things people in that field would see...I can only imagine. Therapists, too; every one I know sees a therapist as part of their self-care. It's a lot to carry around.

  3. I saw compassion fatigue in my father, who was a firefighter for over twenty years in downtown Toronto. He would come home and tell us the "crispy critter count was low today" in such and such fire. He was referring to the number of burned bodies. I never thought at the time that he was coping with the trauma of what he'd seen. My heart goes out to all our first responders, EMTs and health care professionals. Bless you. In our wiring, we want to make our heroes strong, but yes, they have to be relevant and relatable. Thank you for this post.

    1. Yes, first responders are absolutely at high risk for this. Thanks to your brother for all that he does.

  4. This post really resonated with me, Becca. We ALL get worn out with the state of the world, but most of us can get away from it in our cozy little corner of the world. However, the front line workers can't, the military can't, the therapists can't. It's nice to remember this, and to realize there is a tangible condition for what many of them are going through, and there is a roadmap to writing about it.

    Many, many thanks!!!

    1. This is such a good point. Most of us are pretty good about self-care and doing what we need to keep ourselves emotionally healthy. But it's nearly impossible for some people, and we should be cognizant of that.

  5. One of my characters has PTS symptoms and another has a chronic illness, and it fits with their character arcs. I had never heard of compassion fatigue, but it makes sense, especially now, and knowing nurses who deal with trauma daily.

    1. It's surprising how many people struggle with this. I saw someone on FB with a certain banner on their image, and it was to bring awareness to how many veterinarians commit suicide every year. You think it's such a happy profession because the people are dealing with animals, but when your clientele, who is entirely vulnerable, are so often abused and mistreated, I can see how that would take its toll.

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