Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Creating identification for fictional characters

I'm writing this brief article in response to a question e-mailed by a reader:

One of the main driving forces causing people to read fiction is the desire to experience emotion vicariously. The characters in a novel experience fear, hunger, love, triumph and the like. We, as readers, experience an echo of the same. We are rehearsing powerful emotions in safety.

This uses a natural human reaction. When we are with another person, our minds are constantly imagining what they will be experiencing. Thus, if they bump their head painfully, we wince. If they eat a delicious cake, our mouths water. And if they are weeping, we feel sad.

If we are in a state of rapport with the other person the experience will be stronger. If we detest them and feel they are barely human, the experience will be weaker.

In fiction we rely on this human instinct. In describing the things that happen to our characters, we are setting up an echo of those experiences in our readers. The more the readers identify with the characters, the stronger the effect will be.

There are infinite ways in which writers achieve this trick of getting readers to identify with a character. Here are a few of them:
  • Giving the character admirable qualities.

  • Having the character treated unfairly by someone

  • Making the character funny

  • Making the character charismatic or powerful in some way

  • Putting the character in danger

  • Making the character a new arrival in some place

  • Making the character expert at something

  • Giving the character meaningful relationships
We do not have to like the person in order to identify with them. It is enough that we are fascinated by them. Take Sherlock Holmes, for example. He is an unpleasant, self-absorbed drug addict. We identify with him partly because of his skills, his charisma and the love Dr Watson holds for him.

Establishing this identification is one of the most important jobs of the first couple of chapters of a novel or the first few pages of a screenplay.

All I have said above is the standard answer to the question of identification. But I have been following a fair bit of discussion recently about literary fiction. Some books should be challenging. Publishers should make room for 'difficult' books. This is what people have been saying, and I do agree. Is it necessary, therefore, to give the reader an easy ride by allowing them to establish identification with the character in the opening chapter?

I don't have an answer for this, except to say that the purpose of fiction is not to give the reader a hard time. You may need to do that, but it is not a virtue in itself.


Paul Lamb said...

I think there are gradations of this. If a person thought the movie was just as good as the novel, then it would be making it hard for them to expect them to read the book. Watching the movie is much easier, yet I don't think we would want to make the fiction experience that easy for the reader.

I have to read some of John Banville's sentences three times before I understand them. He makes it hard to read, but the payoff is fantastic and worth the effort.

I think similarly that characters that are easy to comprehend aren't necessarily doing the reader any favors. People are complex. Characters ought to be as well. Something about them might be pleasant while other qualities might be repulsive. They are people, if they're well written characters.

I think you address these points in your post, but I just felt like babbling away incoherently.

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks for the comment.