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  • Writer's pictureKit Eyre

Building Empathy Through Character Relationships

I've recently been using The Sims 4 as an outlet for my pandemic stress. There's nothing quite like taking control of a collection of fictional people in your computer to make you feel more grounded and in charge (incidentally, the other fictional people in my brain are doing the exact opposite at the moment but hey-ho).

With my current Sim, I'm working my way through a legacy challenge. Basically, I'm following one family through 10 generations, although I'm still on my founder's generation because I still need to write and do other stuff with my day. Anyway, my founder Sim (Amelia) was pursued by a rather clingy Sim (Daniela) and I basically let them get involved and married just so there would be someone to raise the kids and build the legacy family (yes, I realise how bad this sounds).

If I thought the clinginess would wear off after marriage, I was sorely mistaken. Daniela gets jealous if Amelia's in another room, let alone if she goes to work or the gym. I was quietly waiting for the day when the Grim Reaper would show up and give me a break from the stress.

But here's the thing. When the day came, Amelia woke up and got very emotional (as Sims are apt to do) about the Reaper walking off with Daniela's soul. I had two choices for Amelia: plead for Daniela's life or stand there wailing about it.

Reader, I let Amelia plead for the life of the character I hated.

After the Reaper had toddled off leaving Daniela behind and feeling pretty good about cheating death, I wondered why the heck I'd done that. She was still annoying but she was strutting around being annoying now. Yet when it had come to seeing my founder Sim distraught, I'd chosen to put off that grief a little longer. Because I empathised with Amelia rather than caring about Daniela.

I often read reviews of books stating they felt no empathy or sympathy with a secondary character and they didn't understand why they were such an important part of the plot. I'm not going to analyse any specific novel, but I wonder if authors don't always make it clear enough when a secondary character is supposed to be seen through the lens of the protagonist (i.e. a character they do empathise with).

To take an example, my Valerie Series doesn't feature a character called Tim directly, but he's a huge feature because he's the late husband of one protagonist and the father/son of two other characters. So, he's always going to be a background factor for those characters and he creates another character dimension just by virtue of having existed.

Effective characterisation is all about emotion. Just like my Sim's emotion made me feel empathy towards another Sim who I disliked intensely, Valerie's emotional response to losing her husband (hopefully) builds empathy for her as a character. There are many things to dislike about Valerie, but I don't believe her genuine grief is one of them.

As for my Sims . . . Well, the Reaper will be back. He always is.

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