Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Character Identification

My writing group talked about how readers identify with characters last night, and one member commented that people are most likely to identify with characters who are like themselves. They were referring primarily to characteristics like race and gender. Although there is truth in that statement, I don't have trouble myself identifying with characters who are quite different from me in those aspects. In reading SF/fantasy and horror I've identified with plenty of characters who weren't even human. I mentioned a book here a few days ago by David Gemmell called Winter Warriors. The book has an ensemble cast but my favorite character is the lone black swordsman in the tale. I identify strongly with him.

One the other hand, I recently read a book by the African American writer Donald Goines called Inner City Hoodlum, and I couldn't identify with any of the black characters (or white ones, for that matter) in that book. This got me to thinking, why could I identify with a black character in one case and not another? I think there are two reasons.

First, the main black character in "Hoodlum" has ambitions that I don't share. He wants to get rich, wear fancy clothes, drive a fancy car, and have sex with a new woman every night. In other words, he was not like me at all on the inside. Nogusta, on the other hand, the black swordsman from Winter Warriors, wants a quiet place of his own but has duties that keep him from getting it. He cares about other people (perhaps more than I do), and is hard working, loyal to his friends, and misses his family. Boom, identification.

Second, Nogusta's goals in the context of the book are universal ones. He's not in it to help just himself or those who are replicas of himself. He wants to make the world a better place for everyone. He wants to see "all" children happy. He even cares about animals, and rescues a horse from slaughter because--even though it is old--it has a noble and brave past.

Putting aside any discussion of "realism" in characters, Nogusta is the kind of person I'd like to be. Any character, of any race or gender, or species, that shows these kinds of universal goals will be someone I can identify with.

9 comments:

Erik Donald France said...

Couldn't agree more -- the qualities and yearnings of the character are more important than any other consideration. In Hustle and Flow, the main chracter is a pimp, but he wants more out of life for him and his entourage, which many can relate to. If not him, they can relate to his cleaner living producer and his wife, who also want a better life. Basic, but things to identify with.

Michelle's Spell said...

I agree -- it's so strange what hits one intensely. When I was young, I loved books about trapped men in bad marriages. It would seem there wouldn't be a natural identification, but I loved them.

etain_lavena said...

I agree Charles...I mean I identify with even men...I mean you have seen my characters mostly men.
If there is something that makes me feel at ease with the character I will identify...
:)

cs harris said...

Good post, Charles. It is those inner characteristics that create real identification, which is why we can identify with aliens and even animals.

Steve Malley said...

You've got me thinking about identification with the other side of the street -- the villains.

Thanks, both for a great post and for a good idea for me today.

Susan Miller said...

I heart Atticus Finch right now and that pretty much says it all.

Amen, brother.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I guess you know which character I'd identify with--the one from the Donald Goines book. How about gender, is it more difficult for males to identify with a strong female character and vice versa? Did that get discussed also?

Lucas Pederson said...

I identify with characters who are lower middle class and hard workers. They might not be the most flamboyant or the best dressed, or drive a Viper, but they got strength. They also got a certain dry wit that I admire. They are usually family orintated and very grounded. Life handed them a poor deck, but they sure put up one hell of a fight to get dealt something a little better. And someimes that deal is very good indeed. Perhaps this is why I love to read Stephen King novels and stories. He uses middle class folk a lot in his work.

Oh, and thanks for mentioning David Gemmel, I bought a book of his called Legend. I'm anxious to read it. It looks very promising. Later.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks everyone for posting. Lucas, let me know what you think of the Gemmell. That's the book to start with, but some of the later books about the character are even better. JR, we are going to talk about that more next week. I think I have a harder time identifying with a female character than with a male of a different race, say. But I'll try to post on what we get into with the group.