Storytelling

Accounting for Character Identification

Harry Potter wearing the sorting hat

Harry Potter gives kids a character that's easy to identify with.

Most principles of character likability work for a broad audience. But when a reader identifies with a character in your story, it can alter likability in ways that are difficult to predict. What’s more, every reader could identify with a different character, creating highly varied results. While character identification will never be completely in your control, knowing about it will help you make strategic choices about your characters and audience.

What Identification Is and What It Does

Character identification is relatability taken up a notch. Beyond understanding and sympathizing with the character, identification happens when an audience member feels like they and the character are one and the same. At some level, the audience’s conception of the character is wrapped up in their own identity. This sounds dramatic, but the effect can be weak or strong. The audience may not be consciously aware of identifying with the character.

The Causes of Identification

Identification happens naturally when someone notices similarities between themself and the character that are central to the person’s identity. The most important similarities seem to be the following:

  • Demographics: If the character’s age, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., matches that of the audience member, that makes identification much more likely.
  • Experiences: If the character is going through an experience that was important to the audience member, that can create identification. In particular, experiencing similar hardships has a large impact.
  • Major career or hobby: Other large parts of someone’s identity, like their career, can also have an impact. However, since there are so many careers and hobbies, the career of a character is less likely to make a big difference to audience identification overall.

If the character has notable traits that are different from the audience, that often reduces identification. However, people may still identify with a character who seems very different from them.

In addition to similarities and differences, having control over the character is a huge factor. If the audience chooses what the character says or makes decisions for them, identification is likely. This rarely applies to readers, but it can be crucial for game players and for storytellers. Because of the control they have, storytellers often identify with one or more of their characters.

How It Affects Our Interpretation of Characters

In most cases, identification increases character likability and creates a rose-colored impression of the character. While characters usually have to earn the sympathy and respect of audiences through suffering and selflessness, audiences who identify with a character will generally like that character by default.

Identification also allows the audience to live vicariously through a character to a much greater extent. Audience members who identify with a character will want that character to receive more candy – sometimes a lot more candy – than people who don’t identify with them. People who identify with a character will enjoy watching the character do cool things and have fun experiences. No amount of praise is too much when an audience member strongly identifies with a character.

While this effect can be a big boost for the story because it dramatically increases audience attachment, it’s not always a plus. People often assign their own traits to characters they identify with, even if those traits aren’t expressed anywhere in the work. This creates a new variable in audience interpretation that makes it harder to tell the story. For instance, an audience member who has motherhood as an important identity could assume a mother in the story is motivated by her desire to care for her children. Then, this audience member would find it unbelievable when the character doesn’t act based on this perceived motivation.

The audience can also identify with the wrong character. Ideally, audience members identify with the main character, and since they get to know the main character best, that is quite likely. However, the right character can foster identification no matter the role in the story. Identifying with an antagonistic character instead of a protagonist can ruin a person’s enjoyment. Identifying with a side character sometimes works out, but if that side character didn’t get a chance in the spotlight, audience members are still likely to end the story feeling unsatisfied. If you kill off or embarrass a character they identify with, they could become upset.

Planning for Identification

While the causes of character identification are often unique and personal, there are a few levers you can pull to change the likelihood that your audience will identify with your characters.

Choosing Character Traits

When you craft a protagonist, consider how much identification you want for that character and from what group of people. This is a trade-off; the traits that make a character interesting and memorable will also make your audience think, “Not me.” Even if you succeed, you will inevitably have some audience members who don’t like the character because of your efforts to make them relatable.

Aiming for identification from a broad audience means giving your character more common and generic traits. I refer to characters that are written to have high relatability and identification as blank characters. Blank characters aren’t completely without unique personality traits, but the traits they do have are ones that are easy for many audience members to believe they themselves possess.

Harry Potter is an example of a well-written blank character. The intended audience for the series is children, but even adults are likely to identify with him. While a “disregard for rules” is a trait the books assign to him that might make him stand out, Rowling writes it so almost every instance of rule breaking feels justified to the audience. It feels like we would all break those particular rules in those particular situations. Harry’s not the smart kid because most children don’t think of themselves as the smart kid. Harry is brave because most children want to believe that in a crisis, they would be brave.

If you decide to target a narrow audience instead of a broad one, your character doesn’t need to be so blank. In that case, it’s time to do as much research as you can on how your target audience view themselves and what their escapist fantasies are. Protagonists targeting a specific group usually have a veneer of “I’m just an ordinary X,” but once the story gets going, they develop all the characteristics the audience wishes they had, and they are richly rewarded for it. Bella from Twilight is a solid example of this.

While earning a devoted fanbase of one particular group can be enough to make a book into a bestseller, I still recommend making choices that gives the character greater appeal for those who aren’t in your target market. Give the character selfless and sympathetic traits. Don’t glorify them in the beginning of your story. This is the difference between Harry Potter, who is loved by many and at least tolerated by almost everyone, and Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who is loved by kids and hated by adults.

As for antagonists, in many stories they are too immoral for identification to be a problem. However, audiences aren’t great at noticing subtly immoral behavior. If you have a character showing problematic behavior that is all too common in real life, you are likely to have audience members who will identify with that character and think the protagonist is the one who is wrong. This makes it more difficult to make commentary on real-life issues. If you make their bad behavior too subtle, many people will defend it; if you exaggerate it too much, then it won’t feel like real life anymore. In these cases, consider giving your antagonist unusual traits so fewer people identify with them. Just don’t use demographics for this, or it will look like you’re stigmatizing that group.

Making Narrative Choices

If your story has narration, how you narrate it can also influence identification. The choices you make will either bring your audience closer to your character or hold them at arm’s length. You can help put your audience in your character’s shoes with the following choices:

  • Telling the story from the character’s viewpoint. Audiences will bond more with viewpoint characters, which is one of the reasons that written stories are almost always told from the main character’s point of view.
  • Keeping a close narrative distance. Close narration is written through the protagonist’s eyes, whereas distant narration – particularly omniscient narration – is more like looking at the character from the outside. Close limited will foster more identification than omniscient.
  • Narrating in first or even second person. Using these perspectives stuffs your audience right into the character’s shoes.

Like making your character blank, these techniques can also be a trade-off. While bringing your audience in for a close look at your character will foster identification, if the audience isn’t fond of your character, it will reduce their enjoyment further. Since it’s always important for your audience to understand your protagonist, I think writing close narration from your protagonist’s viewpoint is called for in most stories anyway. However, if you’re going so far as to use second person, you can reduce the risk of audience rejection by making your character blank.

This also means that for the rare story with a deliberately unlikable protagonist,* distant narration is called for. Letting the audience listen to a likable omniscient narrator instead of the cringeworthy protagonist will reduce the damage to your story. However, if you find that you unintentionally wrote an unlikable character, it’s better to change the character than to change the narration.

Evaluating Your Work With It in Mind

Examining Your Own Motivations

As I mentioned earlier, it’s common for storytellers to write characters they identify with. If your character either feels similar to you or is someone you wish you were, that’s a sign you are identifying with them. If you don’t want to give your character significant flaws, that’s another big sign.

Identifying with one of your characters is not bad in itself. Even if you write yourself directly in the story, with your own name and everything, it could be fine. But if you identify with your character, you are likely to have a different outlook on that character than your audience. That will make you more likely to write a character they can’t stand.

Earlier, I mentioned that people who identify with a character don’t need that character to prove themself; the character is liked by default. Audience members who identify with a character also want the character to get lots of glory because they experience it vicariously. When a storyteller is in this mindset, they don’t expend any effort to make their character likable to other people. Then the storyteller will give the character rewards that the audience won’t think the character has earned. The result is bad karma and a character who’s unlikable without identification.

Identifying with a side character is also perilous for storytellers. When the storyteller becomes more attached to a side character than the main character, the plot typically pivots to revolve around the side character instead of the protagonist. Because the beginning focuses on getting the audience attached to your main character rather than the side character, these plot changes will leave the audience feeling dissatisfied or even angry.

By recognizing when you are identifying with a character, you can catch where this impulse may be leading you astray. If you’re not sure if this is an issue in your work, getting some outside opinions can be helpful.

Beta Readers

If you have friends or beta readers who look at your work and give feedback, pay attention to whom they seem to be identifying with. It can matter with editors too, but editors are more trained in working with stories that aren’t optimized for their tastes.

While you can’t always tell which person identifies with which character, there are clear signs you can look out for. First, just ask yourself how similar they are to the character. If your beta reader is a youngish white guy who works in tech, he’s likely to identify with a white boy nerd. If your beta reader is a middle-aged woman who runs her own business, she’s likely to identify with an adult woman who shoulders a lot of responsibility. How they conceptualize themselves matters as much as their real traits.

You can also look out for responses that suggest they identify with the character. Do they mention that they’ve experienced any of the problems that character struggles with? Are they assigning that character additional traits that they see in themselves? They might outright say that the character reminds them of themself or reminds them of their past self.

While it’s useful to know which characters audience members identify with, identifying with a character doesn’t make their feedback invalid. If multiple friends are identifying with the same character, many audience members will probably identify with them as well. But understanding which characters people identify with will help you account for differences in opinion. If men love your story but women hate it, you’ll have a better idea of why. You can decide whether you want to leave it that way or make your character more likable to women.

Regardless of its validity, identification makes it perilous to take the input of any single beta reader too seriously. Aim for at least three people of different walks of life to look over your story, and then look for common threads in what they say.

Hearing From Fans

If you’re at the point in your career where you have a fanbase, you will be able to understand them better if you know how much it means to them to have characters they identify with. Identification is an emotionally powerful and usually very positive experience. It makes audience members feel validated and tells them that they are not alone. 

Many people write fan fiction specifically to insert a character they identify with into a story. Sometimes this is just fun wish-fulfillment, but for marginalized groups, it may be the only time they ever have a character they can identify with. Storytellers are not serving them the same power fantasies that privileged people regularly get, so they are making those power fantasies for themselves.

If you can regularly find stories with a protagonist like yourself, it can be difficult to understand how tough it is for people who don’t see themselves in popular stories. But whether or not you’ve experienced it, you should know that if you dangle a character who marginalized groups can identify with in front of them only to take that character away, they will get upset. You will have fan backlash and for good reason.


Storytelling is complicated because the human mind is complicated. But it is possible to distinguish between general patterns and individual differences. Having a good grasp of what causes individual variation will make you feel more in control when it occurs.

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Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    Chris:
    You threw me at first by expressing “identification” in terms that psychiatrists would use to describe a phenomenon known as “transference”.
    Maybe you should have printed this article after an article on the subject of “Understanding The Spectrum Of Likability-Attachment-Representation-Transference” to clear up your definitions for both yourself and your readers.

    Or alternately titled:- From I Like To I Love To I Am.

    • Cay Reet

      Or, perhaps, Chris simply used ‘identification’ in the way regular, non-psychiatrist people would understand it.

      • Michael Campbell

        Well I would have said the article was about “attachment” rather than “identification”. But when she began Chris went on to describe transference as her meaning, even though that later woundn’t be the salient point of the article.

        • American Charioteer

          Chris talked about attachment elsewhere (https://mythcreants.com/blog/the-four-critical-elements-that-make-stories-popular/), defining it as “the degree to which the audience cares about elements of the story.”
          This article defined identification in the second paragraph
          (as taking relatability “up a notch”) and used that definition consistently, so I don’t see the problem. It is clear that identification with a character is just one extreme form of attachment to story elements.

          As for transference, I am glad that Chris didn’t use that term because it doesn’t necessarily mean identifying yourself with another person. Seeing your boss as a father figure or mistrusting your current boyfriend because your previous boyfriend cheated are also examples of transference.

          • Michael Campbell

            “Seeing your boss as a father figure or mistrusting your current boyfriend because your previous boyfriend cheated are also examples of transference.”
            I whole heartedly agree.
            Even Tony Stark wanting Happy & Pepper to get back together in order to have a de facto Mum & Dad is an uncommon form of transference*.

            I’m just saying that the spectrum of “I like that guy because I see parts of myself in him” and “the writer is really writing about me” could have been better delineated.

            *Not unlike “Plato” in Rebel Without A Cause.

  2. Dave L

    I may be wrong here. This is certainly not a scientific survey.

    But it seems to me, from various interviews I’ve read, that a person from a marginalized group is more likely to identify w/ a character from that same group than a person from a privileged group is to identify w/ a privileged character, no matter who the character is, because (almost by definition) marginalized people don’t see “themselves” represented as often

    I’ve read more than one interview w/ a Black woman who identified w/ Star Trek’s Uhura because there were so few competent Black women on TV at that time

    • Cay Reet

      Whoopie Goldberg went on record saying how she was blown away by Uhura, the first time she saw her – the first time a black woman she saw on TV wasn’t a maid, but had an important job.

      • Michael Campbell

        Nichelle Nichols wanted to quit Star Trek because the part was quite small.
        And she was rung up by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and asked to “stick it out”. Specifically because being on that bridge was giving hope to young girls of colour.

    • Michael Campbell

      Not having seen much of Everybody Hates Chris but:- I did like the opening of the episode I saw.
      “My parents loved game-shows.
      They’ld always barrack for the black contestant.
      Or failing that, whoever had a tan.”
      I dare say, a lot of people actually feel that way.

    • Chris Winkle

      I think there could certainly differences due to a) some traits like whiteness and maleness being viewed culturally as “default” and b) how often different groups see characters like them.

      However, I would be careful not to frame identification as more relevant for marginalized groups, because the identification of privileged storytellers continues to have an enormous effect on the media we see today. When one demographic – in the US it’s white men – is overwhelmingly in control, they will focus on characters they identify with. And all those white male characters who everyone else is supposed to think of as heroes will often act like assholes. Because of identification, the storyteller likes them anyway. This reinforces a double standard of behavior for privileged and marginalized people.

  3. Passerby

    Who else most of the times identifies with antagonists or side characters that are quite clearly not the ones the author had in mind for their audience to identify with? Please, raise your hands, let me feel that I’m not alone…

    • Michael Campbell

      Well in The Peacemaker, I found myself barracking for Dusan Gavrich, which I suspect was not the intent of the writers.
      https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0119874/characters/nm0411903?ref_=tt_cl_t3

      Also, when I left the cinema after watching Rogue One. I realised that if that had been the first Star Wars movie that a person had watched; one could come out thinking that the Empire are the good guys.
      Seriously, the Rebel Alliance are cruel and incompetent* while the Empire are just trying to keep the rebellion from destroying what little order there is in the universe.

      *The Rebel agent meets his contact, in a dead-end and the only way out is to climb but the contact is morbidly obese and can’t climb, so the rebel agent shoots him. Sorry, that’s both cruel and incompetent.
      Far better to simply climb alone and have the film cut at some later stage to a scene where a Storm-trooper and an Imperial officer burst in to some little old lady’s apartment and she says; “I’m just putting on some tea. There’s blue milk in the negative-thermal-case if you’ld like some.”
      And the storm-trooper says; ” I can’t believe he lied to our interrogation droid.”
      And the Imperial officer say; “Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he was lied to himself.”
      And suddenly our rebel operative looks like he’s competent. Like he’s been doing this job for a few years and knows the importance of a plan-B.

  4. Tifa

    Just out of curiosity, would making a character deliberately mysterious and open to enormous amounts of alternate interpretations both in and out of universe be doable or just a terrible idea?

    • Julia

      I could see that working for a secondary character, but maybe not for a main character unless you want to eventually tell their backstory (and make the payoff worth the build up.)

    • Chris Winkle

      If this is your main character and it’s a narrated work (as opposed to a movie), it’s usually a really bad idea. It’s not impossible if you use a Watsonian POV character who isn’t actually your main character to watch them, but in practice this is really tricky. Instead, you might consider making this character an antagonist – antagonists work much better with being mysterious. It will also help you keep from favoring this character too much if you really love the character idea (whereas a fickle god could be open to interpretation but will easily take over the story). Regardless of their role, you’ll have to be careful to make sure all your possible interpretations don’t come off as inconsistent, irrational behavior.

      • Tifa

        So, then, if the character was basically the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, sleep, imagination, creation, and spiritual awakening, would people accept that dreams are by nature mysterious and often confusing, or would they just throw the book at the wall in disgust, do you think?
        [I’m using third person omniscient, and the character in question so far never gets a point of view section.]

        • Chris Winkle

          I think that concept would work, but it would depend on careful implementation. You have to be clear about the lack of clarity, as strange as that sounds. If readers know the character is prone to whims and does whatever sparks their imagination, they’ll understand why the character is doing contradictory things. If they don’t have a framework for understanding why the character is behaving that way, they may get fed up. You also don’t want it to look like the character just does whatever is plot convenient, or it will feel contrived. There are certainly pitfalls and you can expect a challenge, but I don’t think the concept is inherently flawed.

  5. Christie Powell

    I have a couple of examples: Though many of my friends and family loved the movie, I hated “10 Things I Hate About You.” At first I identified with the main character as a ‘good girl’, but then we got to the scene where she goes to a party, gets drunk, and starts acting crazy. I felt betrayed that she wasn’t like me after all and couldn’t stand the character or the movie any further.

    My mom identified with the villain in Tangled so much that she didn’t enjoy the movie. The fake mom does make some mean comments to the main character, but they can easily be mistaken as friendly teasing–and my mom does that kind of teasing. She didn’t enjoy Brave for the same reason–she identified with the mother, yet the daughter is supposed to be the more relatable one.

    • Cay Reet

      In case of Brave and Tangled, that could have a lot to do with the target audience. For Disney (and Disney-related) movies, the target audience is the children and they have a different view of mothers (what they are like, what they do, what is good and bad about them) than a mother would – and naturally so.

      That moment where ‘hey, I can perfectly identify with character X’ turns into ‘character X is not like me’ can be very bad. I had several of those moments, too.

  6. 3Comrades

    Uriah Heap from David Copperfeild is a subtle evil made hateful. I identified with him immediately but due to his cruel nature, and definite othering he felt more of a warning.

  7. Lizard with Hat

    I am puzzled right now. I have a cast of three characters for my story. I know I identify a great deal with each of them but I want to see them face challenges and overcome them. I don’t want to hand them their victory even I think they are deserving of it, I want see them struggle for it.
    I also think my characters would want to have their victories handed to them.

    So, am I overthinking this?

    • Chris Winkle

      As I said, identifying with your characters is not bad in itself. So if you don’t think it’s messing with your judgement regarding your characters, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you’re not sure, get someone who is unlikely to identify with them to read your work, and ask that person if they have enough flaws and challenges in the story.

      • Lizard with Hat

        Sounds good. I will do that. Thanks.

        btw i find your work with this side is awesome :3

    • Michael Campbell

      I suspect what you’re doing is violation Kurt Vonnegut’s sixth rule.
      https://mythcreants.com/blog/how-useful-are-kurt-vonneguts-eight-rules-of-writing/
      It’s very easy for an author to think of his or her characters as friends.
      And then it becomes hard to send those friends on some quest from which they may not return alive but definitely will not return the same.
      I dare say most authors have this difficulty.

      • Lizard with Hat

        What i mean is that im not worried that im to attached to my characters, so i make them win to easly, i put them into entertaining missery every day.
        Im fear im to attached to them in another way … like, damn, i know what they thinking… thats kind a creepy, should i be worried?

        • Michael Campbell

          Well, I guess you need to ask yourself if you endorse what they’re thinking on the grounds that you thought it first.
          It can become hard to write a villain because you yourself would not endorse that character’s actions.

          As to creepy:- Creepy with regard to reading the minds of people on the street; that one is pretty creepy.
          Reading the minds of the fictional characters you wrote with the aid of your imagination; not creepy in the slightest.

          Also watch out for “too” and “to” (and “two”).

          • Lizard with Hat

            Fair points, I will watch out to make sure im not just going on a tagent through my characters… that wouldnt be fun.

            And yes i try to keep my spelling mistakes in check.

            Thanks

          • Michael Campbell

            Also tangent?
            It’s okay to have an adventure by vicariously living through your characters.
            As the author; you should, because the readers will do it too and the author is merely the first of all the readers.

  8. Tifa

    I’ve often found, in books or movies or tv shows, or video games, that the characters supposed to be heroes act like anything but heroes.
    To me, a hero is someone who would save someone else, sacrificing their life if necessary, without thinking about it. Or if that is too narrow, someone who through instinct or intuition, or a personal choice, helps others in some way, large or small.

    • Cay Reet

      I agree with you that a hero should be ready to sacrifice something for the good of others (depending on the type of story not necessarily themselves, but something like their time or resources). An anti-hero is allowed to be selfish, but for them there also should come a moment when they don’t act for their own gain and perhaps even against it. Think of Han Solo in “A New Hope” (the original “Star Wars”) who has his money and a debt to pay off, not to mention he’s not a member of the rebel alliance himself, but he returns and jumps into the battle with his ship, even though the Falcon is a freighter and not a battleship. That’s his moment of becoming a hero.

  9. Tifa

    So far I’ve never had the problem of being reluctant to have characters suffer. Sure, I’m fond of my characters, but that doesn’t prevent me from tearing them apart or inflicting terrible things on them or enforcing their deaths if need be.

    Does that make me sound like a terrible person?

    The way I see it, they grow as I grow.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s tough love, I think. I’m the same … I love my characters, but I know they’ll only grow (and the story will only be worth reading), if I have them go through a lot of horrible things. One principle for me is that if a character has to die, they should die a death which fits with their life so far.

      • Tifa

        Well said, indeed.

        “One principle for me is that if a character has to die, they should die a death which fits with their life so far.”
        Exactly! It’s the same for me.
        Then again, my characters die a lot, since reincarnation is a big part of my universe.

        It’s kind of funny–I have no villains and barely any antagonists in my books. I made it a near iron clad rule when I first started writing.
        Series 1:
        Book 1: a collection of short stories
        Book 2: a fake out antagonist twist
        Book 3 and 4: the characters provide the conflict
        Book 5: a trio of shapeshifters who eventually join the heroes
        Book 6/7: one antagonist who gets redeemed at the end
        Book 8: a collection of poems

        Series 2:
        Book 1-4: the characters provide the conflict and another fake out antagonist twist [and an animated suit of Dark Lord armor, but that doesn’t count]

        Series 3:
        Book 1-4: a ridiculous team of villainous rejects who barely qualify as antagonists

  10. Bryony

    My biggest problems with shows have been because of characters I identified with. I put up with all the icky bits of The Big Bang Theory, but when Amy got super sexual it made me feel betrayed. I’m asexual and autistic; she was like my avatar. I didn’t want to see my avatar do those things! I feel like this is one of the big problems for privileged people writing from a perspective other than their own – they write a character that an opressed group identifies with, but they aim it at a mainstream priviliged audience and it becomes skincrawling.

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