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Rule of Empathy

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"You know what makes people different from animals? We're the only species on Earth that observes Shark Week. Sharks don't even observe Shark Week; but we do. For the same reason, I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve, and then go like this; [snaps it in half; gasps of horror] and part of you dies, just a little bit on the inside. Because people can connect with anything. We can sympathise with a pencil, we can forgive a shark, and we can give Ben Affleck an Academy Award for screenwriting. People can find the good in just about anything except themselves."
Jeff Winger, Community

Believe it or not, humans have an amazing ability to empathize with other humans and reasonably humanoid equivalents, even fictional ones! A lot of it has to do with the kind of focus a character receives, be it a Sympathetic P.O.V., with Pet the Dog moments, or any of the dozens of Characterization Tropes.

This in turn extends a kind of Popularity Power onto the protagonist/focused on character, giving them a better chance of success in their endeavors than would otherwise be expected. So, one ninja can beat 10,000 ninjas because we've been following the one ninja the whole show; and we know nothing about any of the 10,000. On the other hand, when the villain comes, he'll pose a genuine threat, because we know who he is, what he wants, and may even have developed sympathies for him as well.

The Rule of Empathy works hand in hand with Plot Armor; while the Rule of Empathy gives a greater chance of success Plot Armor makes surviving long enough to reach that goal easier. Interestingly, it is by no means linked to intelligence. A compassionate fool is likelier to survive than a pragmatic Jerkass. This is also why the Littlest Cancer Patient cannot die of anything but their illness: we're simply too attached to them.

Relatedly, it should be noted that the Rule of Empathy is not an all-powerful charm that grants success and survival to sympathetic characters. It may well be used against the characters/audience with the likes of a Mauve Shirt being Killed Off for Real, or to hook us into rooting for the Failure Hero. As noted earlier, making a villain sympathetic is a sure way of making the audience deeply invested in a story. Sure, they're bad, but they're not all bad.

The Rule of Empathy also informs viewers and characters (and at times authors) just how good or bad an action is within the context of the story. When a villain destroys a whole Throwaway Country, we don't care because we never saw those characters. But when they kill one character the audience or hero empathizes with, then they've crossed the Moral Event Horizon.

The Rule of Empathy also has a dark side. There is a fate worse than being a 'neutral' Innocent Bystander with no real attachment to the audience; characters who are notably unsympathetic will (with few exceptions) be in for a world of hurt. Whether it's because they Kick the Dog or do other heinous deeds that alienate them from (most) viewer's sympathies, these characters will have a comeuppance at the hands of something similar to karma, ranging from the Humiliation Conga, being Hoist by His Own Petard, suffering a Death by Irony, or falling to a Fate Worse than Death. Related to Woobie and all variations thereof.

Supertrope behind Conservation of Ninjutsu, Mook, Red Shirt. Contrast with Lack of Empathy & No Sympathy. See also: Rule of Cool, Rule of Funny, Rule of Drama.


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  • An IKEA advertising campaign lampshaded this. One example showed a desk lamp be replaced and left out in the rain on the curbside. Cue sad music. The ad then proceeded to tell viewers they were crazy for having feelings for a lamp.

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Big Bad turns an entire Throwaway Country into Philosopher's Stones. This is upgraded from a terrifying display of power to an unforgivably evil act when we hear the voices of the souls of some of those people inside Hohenheim, and learn that they retained their consciousness and personalities even after being made into Philosopher's Stones. Their comments, especially their enthusiasm in using their souls to fuel Hohenheim's alchemy so he can defeat the Big Bad, make them sympathetic to the audience.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! (a series which, to most fans, thrives on Narm Charm) tends to get this a lot.
    • We're given some particularly good reasons to empathise with Maximillion Crawford/Pegasus, who lost the woman he loved and has been trying to get her back ever since. Other villians such as Malik/Marik, who was forced into a role he didn't want to play his whole childhood and developed a huge bitterness towards the Pharaoh, Amelda/Alister, whose home country was destroyed by a war fought with weapons supplied by Kaiba Corp — you know, before Kaiba corp did games — and Bakura, whose entire village was slaughtered to create the Millennium items, also engender a lot of empathy.
    • Then there's Yugi who is just... he's like the poster child for Woobification. If you watch the unknown first season in particular, or read the manga, then you see that he starts out as nothing more than a punchbag for every bully in Domino High. Including bullies whom he stands up for and who later end up being his best friends.
    • Not to forget that the duels often try to make the viewer feel sympathy for the cards.

    Comic Books 
  • This is one of the many, many tropes subverted by the beginning of Neil Gaiman's Black Orchid miniseries: a Mook captures the title character, shoots her in the head, and sets her on fire to be sure she's dead.

    Fan Works 
  • In Jessica, the sympathetic setup for both Cameron and Jessica possibly contributes to the happy ending, with the two reconciled and Jessica returned to life.

    Film - Animated 

    Film - Live-Action 
  • In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Judge Doom memorably vaults over the Moral Event Horizon by painfully murdering an innocent just to prove he can. Who is this innocent? A cartoon shoe. Take an ordinary shoe, draw a face on it, have it make cute squeaking noises and nuzzle up against people's legs just like a friendly cat, and the audience will be horrified when it's killed in cold blood.

  • In any given Honor Harrington book, the good people, even if on the wrong side, are generally the ones who like or at least respect Honor personally. For example, the first book ends with Honor about to chew Sonja Hemphill out. Three books later, the latter woman is still perfectly willing to drum Pavel Young out of the service for cowardice. Several books later, the two are apparently on conversational terms, and Honor has admitted the other woman was essentially right in her viewpoint.
    • Also goes for some of Manticore's Havenite opponents. Anyone on the Havenite side who respects the Manticorans, or who the Manticorans respect in turn, is, generally speaking, a fundamentally decent person who merely happens to be on the opposing side. See, for instance, Thomas Theisman, Lester Tourville, Shannon Foraker, Javier Giscard, and Eloise Pritchart. This makes the two star nations joining up in a military alliance against the Solarian League much easier, as everybody already thoroughly respects the people they're now working beside. Unsurprisingly, a few Birds of a Feather friendships start to form, most notably between Queen Elizabeth and President Pritchart and Sonja Hemphill and Shannon Foraker.
  • In The Hunger Games, this is present as a part of the universe. When Haymitch is trying to mentor Katniss, he tries very hard to make her likable, to make her someone who will earn the audience's sympathy. Sympathy will equal sponsors and money for necessities in the arena, and could therefore make the difference in the Games. Peeta, it turns out, is a natural at invoking the Rule of Empathy at the drop of a hat. Katniss is not.
  • In the Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels, the author proves to have difficulty using this trope. The Vigilantes are a group of women who should have your sympathy, with their Dark and Troubled Pasts. Unfortunately, they prove to be politically incorrect, abusive to victims, sexist, acting more like militant feminists than anything good, dishing out a Fate Worse than Death than a Cool and Unusual Punishment, and acting more like spoiled little girls who have never really grown up. They basically get away with all of this because the author wants them to! It's no wonder other characters, including some of the villains, prove to be way more likable in comparison!

    Live-Action TV 
  • Common in Crime and Punishment Series. If she is pretty she didn't do it. This evidence is reinforced if she is slight of build and especially if they have a winning personality. She can never have done it.
    • Brought up in an episode of Law & Order when a young, white female on death row suddenly becomes a devout Christian. Jamie snarks that if they were talking about executing a tattooed thug no one would care, but this defendant makes the public feel like they're "clubbing a baby seal".

  • Amoral Attorney Jeff Winger delivers a lecture on this in the Pilot of Community. Ironically, it's a subversion of Pet the Dog — he's trying to stop a fight he started, and only because he thinks it'll get Britta to sleep with him.
  • Doctor Who pulls this all the freaking time, by introducing us to so many good-natured, likable, honest folks, and then killing them in cold blood.
    • In an in-universe example, in "The Christmas Invasion", Jackie Tyler, who at this point usually had fairly harsh words and attitude for the Doctor, becomes very caring towards him as his condition worsens. The Doctor, likely aware of everything that happened within earshot, later thanks her by pulling her into a Group Hug.
    • Such as poor Mo in "The Hungry Earth", who we first meet while trying to help his dyslexic son to read a book ("who loves you more than me?"). He survives, but he does end up being kidnapped and vivisected.note 
  • Firefly: Don't hurt River or Kaylee. EVERYONE watching is their Papa Wolf or Mama Bear.
    • Similarly, although the Buffy/Angel series wasn't afraid to kill off sympathetic characters, if Willow had died the fans would have burned the studio down. Fred is a borderline case because Amy Acker continued as Illyria.
    • It's notable that Joss Whedon is well aware of this, having said that if he wanted the Firefly audience to hate a character, he just had to show them being mean to Kaylee. If he wanted to the Buffy audience to cry, he just had to show them Willow crying.
  • Please direct your attention to the Knight Rider episode (original series) "Junkyard Dog", which sees KITT dumped in an acid pit and literally gutted alive (it's the only time we ever see the nigh-indestructible Knight Industries Two Thousand calling for help). The reactions of the team when he's hauled out, and KITT's resulting PTSD, are heartbreaking for fans; especially the reaction of Michael, who spends hours sitting around outside of the lab, like a nervous family member outside of an operating theatre, while the team is trying to repair him. And if the episode itself gets to you, then for the love of God, don't read the script.
    • KITT tends to do this to people a lot. And given that KITT is essentially a sentient car, that's saying something. All we have to get attached to is his personality.
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation, most of Data's interactions with his crewmates can be attributed to this. He's reasonably convincing as a sentient being and is probably one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire franchise, but he lacks emotions and empathic awareness and several characters have argued that he is effectively a highly complex walking computer which may or may not have a soul. Yet the crew encourages him to create and socialize, many consider him a friend, and treat him as if he were fully capable of feeling. They even encouraged him to form a romantic relationship even though this, technically, should be impossible. Actors from the show have stated that half Data's appeal comes from the empathy we feel towards him: we feel what Data cannot feel, and feel sorry because he can't.
    Riker: For an android with no feeling he sure managed to evoke them in others.
    • This is exactly what makes the episode with his daughter, Lal, such a Tear Jerker (double the empathy objects). He expresses regret (such as he can feel) that he cannot share in her feelings of love and she responds that she will try to feel it enough for both of them.
  • Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Cameron is a cold, emotionless, and literal killing machine who at one point leaves a man and his sister who helped her to die because they don't matter to her anymore. That doesn't change the fact that she is a deeply sympathetic character who rapidly obtained Ensemble Dark Horse Woobie status because of both how interesting she was and all the crap she puts up with without complaint for the Connors.

    Video Games 
  • In the penultimate level of Portal, the player character is given a Weighted Companion Cube, literally a normal cube with hearts on the side. After carrying it around to solve several puzzles, GLaDOS, the AI running the experiments, forces you to incinerate the cube to progress past the level. For the rest of the game and franchise, she constantly guilts the player by treating it like betraying and murdering a best friend.
    • In Portal 2 the player may begin to feel this for GLaDOS after losing control of the facility to Wheatley and the reveal that her program contains the memories of Caroline, the assistant to Aperture Science's founder.
  • In The Sims 3, If a Sim with the Unlucky or Loser trait dies of anything but old age, the Grim Reaper will revive them on the grounds that he "feels sorry" for them, and that they provide too much amusement to be killed off.


    Web Original 
  • Discussed in this Cracked article. Although how valid it is, I've no idea.
    • It is basically true. The numbers have a small error-margin to account for certain personal differences, but otherwise the article is essentially accurate. AND to add insult to injury, fictional characters can count too. So if you spend your time reading a lot of books (or media of choice) and really getting to know the characters, you're cutting back the number of real people you can meaningfully get to know.
      • It should be noted, though, that the composition of the "sphere" is not concrete and unchanging; people can leave and enter it over time, as you become more distant from some people (e.g. if they move away or die) and closer to others. The "Monkeysphere" should be taken less as an authoritative list of every person you will ever know than as a rough estimate of the number of social relationships you can juggle at any given time.
    • However, the article misrepresents the nature of the theory: Dunbar's number (the actual scientific name for the concept, which according to The Other Wiki varies in estimation between 100 and 230, rather than the concrete 150 given by Wong) refers to the number of people with whom one can maintain meaningful social relationships (i.e. know personally) at any given time; Wong's article seems to imply that it describes the number of people for whom one can feel any empathy at all. One can easily extend basic empathy to strangers without knowing them intimately.
    • Another interesting thing to note about Dunbar's Number is that maintenance of personal relationships takes time; he noted in his original paper that maintaining ties to 150 people via "social grooming" would take nearly half of your time, and believed that language arose as a "cheap" substitution for social grooming, relative to the amount of time which needed to be spent on it. In other words, many people are unlikely to even approach their limit because of time constraints — they're likely to spend their time doing other things.

    Western Animation 
  • One of the shorts of ├ćon Flux viciously subverts this, showing a series of characters, each given screen time alone and characterization to make the audience connect with them, and each of whom becomes the subsequent Mook to be slaughtered by another character that the audience is being told to empathize with.
  • Goof Troop. How can you make the audience consistently laugh at The Chew Toy without starting to feel sympathy for him? Especially if his main foil is a complete idiot who causes a lot of problems? Easy: engineer the perfect Woobie (sweet, subjugated, sensitive, and harmless), make The Chew Toy treat him like crap, and show as many of his reactions as possible—both to immediate actions and the treatment as a whole—playing them completely straight in stark contrast to the rest of the show's comedic nature. Usually what Pete goes through can be justified by PJ episodes, and to a lesser extent Max episodes (which tend to feature PJ in major roles), but "Bringin' on the Rain" was a Pete episode that used this a lot.

    Real Life 
  • A really grotesque version is many ideological movements. A large part of the reason the Nazis got away with so much is that they were able to manipulate the world's otherwise laudable sympathy for the country that lost World War I.
  • On a Lighter and Softer note (sort of) one Amish woman got a beer bottle thrown in her face by a passing driver. She was right away given plastic surgery from private contributions from people who did not know her.
  • The canaries used for Canary in a Coal Mine eventually had concessions made to revive them after they passed out from gas, because the miners that use them bonded emotionally with them.
  • One model for a minesweeping robot was built like a centipede to successively activate any leftover mines using its many legs. After testing it immediately got decommissioned because onlookers were horrified watching it pathetically crawl to get more limbs blown off.

Alternative Title(s): Audience Sympathy