Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Identification and sympathy in fiction

with 3 comments

Re-reading Tom Holt’s “The Portable Door”, I ponder the benefits of having a protagonist that the reader can identify* and sympathize with—and how to best achieve them.

*In a stronger sense than a mere “I want the protagonist to succeed” or a superficial and generic “everyman” identification.

Here we have Paul Carpenter—a young man, making his first in-roads into working life and romance. So far, we have someone that most young men can readily identify with. Indeed, with minor modifications, so can many young women. Even the older generations can often look back and recognize certain situations, fears, naive mistakes, whatnot—especially, where romance is concerned.

However, over large stretches, I also find myself partially repulsed and repeatedly having thoughts like “How can he be that stupid!”—as I did even during my first reading as young-ish* man. Paul, at least by my standards, borders on being an idiot. The book is filled with examples of poor judgment, beyond what can be explained by e.g. stress and unusual situations**. To boot, he is horribly uneducated and ignorant, as exemplified by his being entirely unaware of Chekhov-the-playwright. No, I do not mean that he had failed to develop an educated opinion of Chekhov’s works,*** I mean that he genuinely had no idea that there was another Chekhov than Chekhov-from-Star-Trek … It is virtually impossible for me to truly identify with someone like that—and even having sympathies is often hard (but Paul overcame that obstacle).

*Going by a still present label on the cover, I likely bought the book in 2004, when I was 29.

**Note a number of in-roads that most young men do not encounter, including magic, goblins, and the eponymous portable door.

***Which was requested as part of a job interview—some questions of which were unreasonably tough and of dubious relevance to Paul’s application. For the record, I do not have such an opinion either: I read one or two of his works at a very young age, and have not gotten around to reading anything more in the thirty-or-so years since. Chekhov, however, remains one of the most influential and best known authors in the history of literature, and should be known by name by anyone past high school. (In fact, I have always assumed that Chekhov-from-Star-Trek was named as a joking reference to Chekhov-the-playwright.)

To boot, he is as assertive as a wet noodle, falls in love with and fails to pursue his closest co-worker, has more luck than skill, …

Still, I found myself enjoying the book immensely, even at what must be my forth or fifth reading. (But the last previous reading might be some ten years back, which lessens their impact.) This is not only a genuinely funny book, with dashes of excitement, romance, and whatnot—it also builds an interesting world, gives a depiction of office life that most of us can recognize in that simultaneously amusing and depressing Dilbert manner, and it left me starting on the sequel just a few hours after I had finished the first book.

This brings me to three more detailed questions (and at least partial answer attempts):

  1. How import are identification and sympathies?

    Certainly, they are beneficial, and there are some works that have left me cold because I not only failed to identify with the protagonist—I outright detested him.* However, mostly they are not necessary. In the case of some works (e.g. “Clockwork Orange”), the deviation might even be a positive, because it leaves the reader with more detachment and allows the exploration of actions and situations that are strange to the reader.

    *“Catcher in the Rye” is an excellent example—especially, because I have heard others base their enjoyment on how well they could identify with Holden. (Also see item 2.)

    If in doubt, I would likely go with sympathy over identification (as a priority for authors)—it could even be argued that the point of identification is to elicit sympathies. With Paul, e.g., I could see how his incompetence and weakness could create some amount of “pity sympathy”, and I have often made the observation that a character only took off after a tragedy/misfortune/injustice, as e.g. with Spike on “Buffy” after he (temporarily) ended up in a wheel-chair, saw Angelus take over his operation, became the butt of Angelus’ and Drusilla’s jokes, whatnot. Buffy, herself, serves as an example of sympathies-over-identification: a valley-girl with super powers—nothing like me.* Vice versa, too competent, successful, happy, whatnot characters often come across negatively, as with the “Mary Sue” type.

    *However, I did see considerable parallels with her mentor Giles, at least in his early portrayals. It should also be noted that there were some aspects of Buffy and her life that became more “identifiable” (for want of a better word) as the show and the character matured—if not to the point that identification could take place.

  2. If an author goes for identification (or, to a lesser degree, sympathy), what target reader should he imagine?

    For instance, I am very considerably above average in intelligence, and I have trouble identifying with stupid characters—but what about the readers who are less intelligent? Similarly: Will the jock and the bookworm see e.g. Harry Potter* and Hermione differently? What about those who liked “Catcher in the Rye” because they could identify with Holden? Will youthful naivete work as well on older readers as on younger?** Can the teenage reader feel for the old geezer? Etc.

    *I will use the “Harry Potter” books as my main source of examples, because they are sufficiently widely read (or the films watched) that the examples are likely to be recognized.

    **As a specific example, had I read “The Portable Door” at Paul’s age (20?), I would have sympathized very strongly with his romantic incompetence, because I was very similar at that age (“that is me”). Even at the time of the original reading, I had sufficient memories of those days that I could recognize the situations and really feel for him (“that was me”). Now, however, I mostly cringe (“I cannot believe that I once was like that”). Of course, the high-school studs might have reacted negatively from the beginning.

    The solution might be found in the ensemble, in that if a reader does not click with the one character, then there is a handful of other candidates. (Also note the boy-band principle of covering the bases sufficiently that every girl of 14 will fall in love with some member.) This can to some degree be applied to individual characters too, in that they have several aspects that allow at least a partial identification, e.g. in that someone is an orphan, a Quidditch star, and a hero. A more personal example is “Dexter”, where I was originally drawn to the series through the way Dexter has to put on a mask to blend in, something that I recognize very well from my own background (although the mask is different and I have gone to far less trouble, not having the need to appear normal to avoid murder charges). In contrast, I have very little sympathy for Dexter as a serial killer.

    Barring that, it might pay to “know the audience”, but I would likely recommend to just write something that the author, himself, would like to read (or would have liked to read at the right age).

    As an aside, it is not a given that an apparent good match will actually pan out. For instance, most portrayals of e.g. software developers tend to fail with me because I am a former software developer: I do not see another software developer in action—I see some acting caricature, clueless of real software development, often even of the basics of computers.

  3. What means are suitable?

    Some additions to what has already been implicitly covered:

    When you look for identification, make the protagonist a better version of the reader, the version of himself that the reader wants to be, the version that his younger self expected him to become, or similar. This because (a) most people view themselves as better than they are, (b) it is easier to mentally slip into a better version of something, (c) this opens a venue of “hopes and dreams” and “reality escape”. A particular trick is to make the hero good at something that the reader will not have encountered, where exposure to reality is a lesser threat (I would make a terrific Quidditch player and be great at magic, if someone just were to invite me to Hogwarts).

    Vice versa, when you look for sympathy, make him a lesser version, preferably one who is competent, intelligent, whatnot, but who has suffered a severe stroke of bad luck or, better, some great injustice, which has prevented the success that would otherwise have followed. However, even some personal deficits can be welcome, because it is easier to pity those that we can look down upon.

    Look for a means to get the reader into the protagonists shoes, even be it in just one aspect. For instance, as with Paul, a young person* who has problems with the opposite** sex through reasons like lack of self-esteem or the insight that said opposite also* has a very strong interest in finding partners—well that covers a major slice of the younger population, because it is a very familiar situation. Unjust treatment, again, is often a workable way, because even those who have not suffered the same treatment will almost always have (or imagined themselves to have) suffered some other major injustice—and even those who do not, can often picture themselves in the same situation, because it is not self-caused. (Harry Potter is a prime example, at various stages, including with his aunt and uncle, with Rita Skeeter, etc., but his situation might be over-the-top for an adult reader.)

    *Regardless of sex: The dual insight that many members of both sexes deal with similar problems and have a similarly strong interest in the area, is of fundamental importance to over-coming such issues.

    **I strongly suspect that the problems are lesser among homosexuals, both because they have a better understanding of the potential others, what they like and do not like, etc., and because a lack of reciprocated interest can often be written of as “is straight” instead of “does not like me, specifically”.

    Be aware* that strong opinions that deviate from the reader’s, actions that the reader would not take, and similar can be off-putting. Take particular care with politics, sexual acts, and the commitment of injustices. The latter, obviously, work both ways—they are good for the protagonist’s sympathy situation when they are committed against him, bad when they are committed by him.

    *Which is not to say that they should be avoided (especially, because keeping all the readers happy all the time would lead to extreme blandness)—just that the author should be aware of the risk and make a decision that takes the risk into consideration.

    Having someone strive for a second chance, redemption, forgiveness, or similar can be very helpful.* This too is a situation that many either know from own experience or can easily imagine themselves in. (Unlike unjust treatment, the situation is normally self-caused; however, there is always “I was mislead by others [who are to blame]”, “I am a different person now [blame the old me}”, whatnot.) Moreover, a reluctance by others to accept the attempts can be framed as an injustice.

    *But do not fall into the trap of making the enemy of yesterday the friend of tomorrow in a blanket manner. This even when it comes to popular-with-readers villains, because a good villain is a major asset.

Excursion on horror movies:
There is a stereotypical family of horror-movie reactions, e.g. “Why are you going out in the dark where the killer is?!?’, that are similar in principle to some of my reactions to some of Paul’s behaviors. Generally, horror movies contain a lot of stupid behavior that can sometimes get in the way of sympathies. For instance, if a protagonist has just managed to ambush the killer, has him on the ground, and could move in to finish the job with a baseball bat—why is the typical tactic to throw down the bat and run away, giving the killer time to recuperate? OK, if we are dealing with someone preternaturally resilient and dangerous, e.g. Michael Myers, I can see the point—but what about all those who are just someone with a knife? (Or those presumably just someone-with-a-knife, seeing that preternatural aspects are often only discovered through the course of the movie.)

Excursion on naive translations:
I recently observed that naive translations, use of synonyms, whatnot can be tricky. One of Holt’s books, likely the aforementioned sequel, contains an excellent example: One character is German and uses a lot of German words. At some point, she is (from context) supposed to say “third gear [of a car]” in German, which comes out as “drittes Pferdegeschirr”. The meaning of “Pferdegeschirr”, however, is the gear used on horses… Moreover, someone with even a basic grasp of German would not have made this mistake, because “Pferd” means “horse”. (The true translation would have bin “dritter Gang”.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

July 25, 2019 at 10:53 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] I realized immediately after posting the previous text, I left out two important observations around Paul […]

  2. […] that I truly clicked with, that truly felt “real”, even if a few others came close. (See e.g. [2] for earlier discussions of sympathy and […]


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