Empathy for Your NPC

So, here it comes, this moment when after all those many posts, comes the last emotion in our series. Today, it's empathy's turn. While in most other emotions the focus was on the plot, with empathy the focus is on the characters themselves.
Empathy is this thing that we feel when we care about a character. It's one of the more powerful emotions, and it makes the characters feel likable and more realistic. Usually, characters in our stories will "dance" between empathy and the opposite of it- enmity.
Empathy is connected to compassion, admiration and contempt.
There are a few ways to make for a more immediate and fast empathy bond between players and NPCs, which we can squeeze into three main groups:

  1. We feel empathy for victims and weak persons, mainly because we feel sorry for them.
  2. We feel empathy for characters that have some humanistic virtues, because we want to be as good as them.
  3. We feel empathy for characters with desirable qualities, because we want these qualities and we want to be the characters.
What I'm going to do in this post, which will be a little bit different from the others, is that I'm going to look at these three groups and see how we can get them in our games.

We feel empathy for victims
We can't help it, when we see a victim, we immediately feel empathy, sorry and pity for him/her. It doesn't matter if the victim is good or bad, we just feel it.
The most common way of victimising a character, at least in movies, is by mistreating them. It can be by teasing them, or by humiliating them, but there's some mistreatment there. Think about Lester in American Beauty who is being constantly humiliated by his wife and daughter, aren't we immediately drawn to him and to his side? Mistreating a character can be far more powerful if the character is falsely accused (like in North by Northwest) of if the mistreatment is brutal (like in Interview with the Vampire).
Another way of victimising a character is through sheer bad luck. Think about the death of Rizzo just before they reach their destination after so much time spent in fighting the disease, or of George's uncle losing the money a minute before the inspection. We just can't stand it there, and most of us (I'm sure) would have rushed to help them if we could.
The last common way for this is through using deformed characters. Characters with some sorts of handicaps, whether physical or mental, are just more prone to our empathy. For some unknown reason, we just really like the underdog. Use it.

We feel empathy for characters that have some humanistic virtues
Virtues are a way of acting towards others, a good way to act toward them. Giving characters some humanistic virtues, like politeness, or generosity, are one of the ways to get empathy for the characters.
Remember our victims from the first group? A character that will help them will be considered a good one, and will draw both attention and caring from the players. Players tend to defend those people that are good, even when they play "not-so-good" characters. Think about George from It's a Wonderful Life, how he helps all those unfortunate souls, is there a wonder why we like him so much? Meet your PCs with a George Bailey and you'll notice it by yourselves.
Another thing is relations with children. Children are considered weak, vulnerable and innocent. A character that is good with them, and/or the children like him/her will get the empathy from the characters for the work that this NPC is doing. Think of Mary Poppins or of Dr. Crowe and you'll see it by yourself. As a side note, if you want a character to be hated from first sight, show this character mistreating a child.
A third and last in this aspect, for doing it is by fighting for a just cause. It is rightly considered a selfless act, and an act that deserves proper recognition. An NPC who goes even further and sacrifices himself/herself for this cause will be even better.

We feel empathy for characters with desirable qualities
Actually, the shortest of them all, as this technique is the most straightforward. We like people with desirable qualities, as simple as that. Give NPCs power, glamorous jobs, passion, beauty or the like, and they'll be much more likable and easier to empathise with.
Look for example on Schindler in Schindler's List: He's not a perfect human being, far from that, and he buys the factory because it's easy money, but the courage he encompasses, when helping the Jews and saving them, makes him so much better.
Think about Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love: He writes because of the lust for women that he feels, until he falls in love with her. The passion does all the rest, hooking us to him, pressing all those buttons that we keep hidden within.
It can work for evil characters also, like the humour that is used with The Joker, a sense of humour that makes him almost as likable as Batman, and far more fun to watch. 

So, this is it for today. Tomorrow there will be a conclusion post to conclude the series, but that's almost the finish line, with 41 kilometres of the Marathon behind.
How about you? How do you create empathy for your NPCs?

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