The Non-Player Character, in the world of role playing games, is a character who is controlled by the game master or one or more players for the purposes of furthering the plot, but who is (most often) not portrayed with their own agency.
They are basically a “placeholder” that fits the needs of the other characters, or of the plot.
I’m going to expand the definition a bit, because I think it is a useful metaphor.
Many of us approach the other people in our lives as NPCs.
Here is a rather horrifying and creepy story that I came across, from “Controlling People” by Patricia Evans, that illustrates one such relationship between a “game master” and their “NPC” as it might play out in real life:
What is fascinating to me about some portrayals in the media of women who are excessively adorable but lack inner life or agency (I’ll elaborate on this later because I have my own interpretation and take on the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stock character) is how they are basically serving the purpose of being an NPC to the main character and to some degree, the “adorableness” may be perceived via an unreliable narrator who really does not know his love interest’s inner life. He has to idealize her via what little he does know – her various quirks and her music preferences.
You also frequently see this portrayal of the male costar in a “chick flick”; he doesn’t really exist outside of the female character’s mind. In fact, I’d love to see a film that actually played with this concept and subverted it (he in fact DOESN’T exist outside of her mind).
The thing is, we act out these dramas in real life. Many of us never get past seeing other people as NPCs.
I once wanted to write a novel about a love triangle in which one of the members of the triangle was an Atlantean prince. The female protagonist is obsessed with the myth of Atlantis and has visions or delusions of this lover, seeing his face in mirrors and dreams, creating an elaborate story around him. The (modern-day) male protagonist would similarly have his own delusions, but about the female protagonist, who mostly ignores him because of her obsession. Different sections of the novel would tell the story from the viewpoint of one of these characters — but there would be a third section telling the story from the prince’s point of view, with the visions he sees seeming like a delusion as well. I wanted to try to keep from committing either way on the reality of the Atlantean elements; whether or not the Atlantean prince was real is irrelevant.
That’s kind of different from most “otherworldly lover” stories, since they usually either commit fully to fantasy or science fiction or just dismiss it quickly as a dream (with a coy suggestion of “…or is it?” right at the end,) without going into issues of what it means if it’s all a dream, but you can’t wake up for it, or spend a long period trapped in it.
I actually went through a period where I subconsciously identified people as PC or NPC by looking in their eyes. There was a certain quality I saw in some people that wasn’t in most eyes. For a little while in that period, I thought that the people I saw that quality in were the ones with souls, and everyone else was soulless. Metaphorically that’s just one step away from determining their N/PC status.
Now, I think that the people lacking that quality are actually those who’ve died a bit inside, whose lives have become a dull existence of work, sleep, eat, and entertainment (that last to try and maintain some semblance of hope and not kill themselves).
I think I perceived people that way for a long time – when I was younger and dominantly socialized for the sake of getting attention, whether or not someone was on my radar would more or less be based upon whether or not they paid attention to me. This was a rather narcissistic way of living, granted. People on my radar would be seen as PCs while everyone else, NPCs. The thing is though – from this frame of mind, the person is STILL an NPC.
What determines actual PC or NPC status in my particular working model is whether or not the other person has existence from their own side… which is kind of an abstract idea, I realize. They talked about this a bit when I was attending that Tibetan Buddhist sangha that I used to attend… though “existence from its own side” in this case was used to illustrate emptiness.
Interesting analogy here. Never thought of it like that before. Yeah, some people in our lives almost do come across as NPCs. Especially the random people you see only once, like a cashier in a store while you’re on a road trip. Sometimes I’ve wondered about the people I meet once, I’ve thought to myself, “I wonder what their life is like.”
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