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.
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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