I have a bit of a confession to make: I have never quite understood what is meant by “identifying with characters”, or why being able to “identify with characters” should be considered.a criterion of literary merit. I often encounter “I couldn’t identify with the characters” as criticism, or “I could identify with the characters” as approval, but whenever I have asked what precisely is meant by “identifying with characters”, I have never yet received a coherent reply.
Part of it seems to be the demand that the reader should like the characters – or, at least, like some of the characters – especially the protagonist. I think “identification” means a bit more than just that, but liking a character does seem a prerequisite. But even at this first hurdle, there are questions: must one like the characters in order to admire – or even like – the work they appear in? Does one necessarily like Eugène de Rastignac? Would one wish to live next door to Hedda Gabler? Invite the Macbeths round to tea? Are the works in which these characters feature any lesser, or do we admire or like these works less, because we do not like their protagonists as people?
The ability to see things through the characters’ eyes doesn’t really take us much further: Dostoyevsky allows us to see the world through the eyes of Raskolnikov, an axe-murderer; Nabokov allows us to see through the eyes of Humbert Humbert, a manipulative paedophile. Seeing the world from such perspectives is often not a pleasant experience, but it is, we may acknowledge, the author’s privilege to take us there: when one is human, nothing human should be alien to us – at least, not in literature. But even when we can see through the eyes of such people and come to some understanding of what goes on in their minds; even when we are brought so close to them as to make us feel deeply uncomfortable; most of us don’t, I think, identify with them. Not in the sense in which the expression is used, at any rate. Identification, I think, goes a bit further still.
Identification, in the sense in which it is commonly used, seems to me to indicate a state of imaginative oneness with the characters – a state in which we find ourselves sharing their feelings, their motives, their emotions and imaginations. And I remain unconvinced that “identification” in this sense is necessary for appreciation of literature. Or even, for that matter, desirable, as this state of oneness may well skew our responses and our judgements, and thus act as a barrier to our appreciation.
Alternatively, I have got this all wrong, and people mean something quite different when they speak of “identifying with characters”. I don’t know. As I said, no-one has ever explained to me quite what they mean by the expression.