The Walking Dead: A Study in Character Empathy

In creative writing, we often talk about character empathy and try to press upon students the importance of writing characters who are empathetic. But what is empathy? Empathy, by definition, is the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others without necessarily having experienced any of those things yourself. Empathy is often confused with sympathy, which by definition is a feeling of care and suffering for other human beings. We feel bad for people with whom we sympathize. We understand why people make certain choices or perform certain actions when we empathize, even if we don’t agree with them.

As a teacher of writing, I always think about how to use popular fiction as a tool for teaching writing, and that includes characters, plots, and stories from current movies and television shows. One show I’ve recently been hooked on is AMC’s The Walking Dead. It’s actually not the kind of show that I usually watch. I openly eschew the horror genre, not because I think there’s anything wrong with it, but because stuff like that freaks me out! I heard so many great things about The Walking Dead, though, and I’m a big fan of one of AMC’s other breakout hits, Mad Men, that I decided to give it a try and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the way the writers of this show have handled character empathy for a few key characters, though I’ve been equally disappointed with the lack of character development in others. More about that in a moment.

The Walking Dead is in its second season and aired a mid-season cliffhanger on November 28th, 2011–and what a cliffhanger it was! There are spoilers ahead, so if you’re not caught up with the show you might want to come back when you’ve watched the November 28th episode.

The Walking Dead, which is based on a graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, is set in a post-zombie apocalyptic world in which a group of survivors are struggling to stay alive among the hoards of walking undead. The “walkers,” as the survivors refer to them, are hungry for flesh and are, for all intents and purposes, soulless killing machines. But they’re also formerly people, and in the latest episode the question of whether or not we should have empathy for these infected souls is reasonable or not in this world where every decision is a life or death matter. This question really came up in the latest episode, “Pretty Much Dead Already,” in which the group of survivors the Internet community has lovingly dubbed Camp Dinner Bell, discovered that Sophia, Carol’s 11 year old daughter who had been missing for seven episodes, had been inside Herschel’s barn-o-walkers and had been changed herself. This was discovered after Shane, in a fit of rage, opened the barn doors to release and shoot the walkers. Earlier in the episode Camp Dinner Bell learned that Herschel, the veterinarian farmer to whom the farm belongs, had been rounding up walkers this whole time and has been waiting for a cure. Herschel looked on in despair as Shane and other members of CDB shot down the contents of the barn, including Herschel’s wife and stepson. In the final moments of the episode, when we were sure the bloodbath had ended, out stumbled little Sophia and for just a split second it seemed that she was okay. It became clear, however, when she turned her blind zombie eyes to the survivors and growled, charging forward for “food,” that Sophia had been lost.

The survivors watched in horror as Carol wailed for her daughter and was held back from becoming Sophia’s dinner by Daryl. Everyone who had been enthusiastically shooting zombies only minutes before stood frozen, unable to make the lethal shot. It was Rick, the show’s main protagonist, who stepped forward to finish Sophia.

Heartbreaking, right?

That’s what I like about this show–it’s not just a show about zombies. It’s about people.  It does what any good story does, which is make us think about our own humanity. I always ask my students what their final stories say about the human condition. At the end of the day, that’s what readers, viewers, and consumers are looking for–a connection between reality and fantasy, between good and evil. The Walking Dead succeeds in this area where failure tends to be rampant. I’ve actually told students no more zombie stories for the time being, because unfortunately, I see way too many zombie stories that are too chock full of stock characters, no sense of empathy, and are essentially plot-less.

But of course, as I mentioned before, The Walking Dead hasn’t completely nailed character development yet. I find many of the characters, including Rick, to be pretty flat. However, two characters stand out as being more developed and empathetic and for me, they keep the show interesting. Daryl is the first one, and I think my reasons for feeling empathetic toward him are fairly black and white. He was initially presented as a racist homophobic redneck (thanks to his brother, the missing Merle) but he has shown a completely other side in which he is sensitive, caring, and dedicated. I care about Daryl as a character and he has been well-developed in terms of empathy. We can understand that he’s a product of his upbringing and surroundings, thus his demeanor and attitude, but he has changed in a fairly short amount of time and has revealed the best of himself, which makes me even more willing to understand him. Daryl is actually an obvious choice. Everyone loves him at this point.

Then there’s Shane.

I’ve recently been involved in many conversations with my fellow English teachers in which we’ve argued the merits and demerits of Shane’s character, who I consider to be the most interesting, empathetic, and developed on the show. Shane has gone from being the stand-up best friend to Rick, father figure to Carl, and original leader of Camp Dinner Bell to the show’s main antagonist. Since Rick reappeared in the lives of his wife and son, Shane has been pushed to the side and his recent actions are a clear reaction to this.

Shane has been villanized since he shot Otis in the leg and left him for dead in “Save the Last One.” And yes, that was an absolutely deplorable thing to do. I always say I’d be the first one out in a zombie apocalypse because I can’t imagine sacrificing the welfare of others to save myself. When T-Dog left Merle to die in one of the earliest episodes in Season 1 I almost had a panic attack just thinking about being in the position to make that kind of choice. That being said, I empathize with Shane’s choice in the Otis situation–I wouldn’t have done that, but I completely understand why he did it. Shane wasn’t only saving himself, his choice saved Carl’s life. If Shane hadn’t shot Otis and left him then he never would have gotten the medical supplies back to Herschel and Carl would have died. Shane loves Carl and Lori, and the fact that Rick ended up being alive and well didn’t change that. Shane isn’t just a guy who was sleeping with his best friend’s wife and who killed an innocent man to save his own skin–he’s a guy who is living with the guilt of having slept with his best friend’s wife, of being suddenly loathed by said wife, and who has been pushed into the position of being the main survivalist because Rick is still thinking in terms of a world where right and wrong matter. He’s been positioned to be the bad guy because Rick is being revered (by viewers and their fellow survivors) as such a good guy. While Rick’s line of thinking may be my own, it’s not what is safest for the survivors.

I don’t believe that Shane wants to be the bad guy. He’s just trying to survive and to protect those around him. His methods are questionable, yes. Some of his actions have been deplorable. But I get it. He’s not doing or thinking or feeling anything out of the clear blue sky. The writers have written him to be insanely empathetic–not sympathetic, but empathetic–in putting him in an impossible situation and forcing him to make decisions based on instinct and survival. I find Rick to be fairly one-dimensional. I was so pleased that he was the one to shoot Sophia because it opened up a door for him to change, and in writing, change in a character is key. Shane experienced change early on in the show–he’s not the same Shane from the first season, and as a result, he’s far more interesting to me than Rick.

What do you think of the character development on The Walking Dead? Who is your favorite character and why? Does character empathy make sense now, or are you as confused as Dale seems to be anytime anyone says anything? And don’t you just love Daryl too?

-Jaclyn Sullivan


About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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3 Responses to The Walking Dead: A Study in Character Empathy

  1. Your logic regarding Shane, coupled with my complete and utter distaste for him only helps prove your point. He is so well developed that I find myself having an emotional and almost physical reaction to a fictional character. While I still loathe him, I recognize that this is still more than I feel for many of the characters on the show (and I LOVE the show–seriously).

  2. Excellent and incisive article!! All too often I see, and understandably so, the characters in the show putting waste to countless walkers and very often showing a severe lack of empathy for their suffering. Abraham exemplifies this in the season 4 episode “Claimed”. When faced with an easy kill of about three or four walkers, Abraham laughs and makes light of the situation as he kills them off, and not just killing in self-defense, but more a brutal massacring of their corpses, especially the female he finishes off last. New member of the group Tara makes note, at this point, of how nice it is to see him smile, for once. He doesn’t just kill to survive in this particular situation, but shows how easy it is (for him) to wipe them all out in one fell swoop, and even appears to be having fun. He shows zero empathy for the former living, who are now nothing but animated human cadavers who were once likely someone’s beloved brother, sister, husband, wife, son, daughter, etc. They did not choose to become walking corpses and have no control over their actions whatsoever. But, this is a world where it’s all about survival now, so I can empathize, not sympathize, that when it comes to survival, you can’t have feelings for the undead. Maybe show more compassion? Is it necessary to bash their heads to pieces if one quick stab with an iron bar in the skull will finish them? Again, its people behaving as people in a fictionalized world we can only imagine ourselves trying to survive in.
    Rick, on the other hand, has, in my opinion, become a more interesting and hardened survivor to watch and has just recently (season 5 finale) began to show similar traits to Shane. It has been interesting to watch Rick go from appearing to empathize with the first walker he killed before he did so (“I’m sorry this happened to you”….he said to her, just before he shot and killed “bicycle girl”, as she crawled across the park with half her body gone….to later being able to just walk up to the living whom he feels threatened by and, put a gun to their head (or ax) and execute them without hesitation. Gareth’s execution I could empathize and sympathize with. Bob’s point blank shot to the head I could not, and Pete’s hasty execution, well….Rick’s the towns resident cop, and Pete’s the “only” doctor…at least give him a trial in your civilized little community before executing him in front of his wife and neighbors. Rick has put trust one too many times into people who are simply out to take what he has, or jealous of him because of what he may wish he had (Petes wife??) and he has now lost all trust. I empathize with much of his actions, but not all. Note how he just walks up and knocks out nice guy Aaron in season 5 out of sheer suspicion. “You’re nice people!” Aaron says to Rick, after Rick ties him up…..and Rick responds…”We’re nice people, but that doesn’t mean we won’t kill you.” Awesome show…..and an equally awesome article.

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