Identifying with characters

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.

32 responses to this post.

  1. I think it can mean several things. Say you’re a young mother, harried and tired from juggling home, children and work, and then you read a novel about such a character. Fairly easy scenario there, but then there are often times when we can ‘identify’ with choices–as in I would have done that in those circumstances. Then there’s the fantasy-type identification where we would LIKE or WISH we could say and do the things that characters do in novels.

    Emma really identified with the character in Underground Time. The review is on her blog if you want to take a look.


    • Hello Guy, I agree that there can be different levels of “identification”. This makes it all the more frustrating, I find, when books are judged on the criterion of “identification”, without any attempt to define or even to explain what is meant by the term.

      I had actually read Emma’s review before. Given that literature addresses human experiences, it is only to be expected that certain fictions touch closely on some aspect of our own experience. I too have read novels and plays in which I recognise certain aspects of my own life. I imagine we all have. And when we, as readers, experience this recognition, it can arouse all sorts of emotions in us – from delight in knowing that we are not alone in feeling as we do, right down to shame if what we recognise is some base aspect of ourselves that we’d prefer to keephidden. There is no problem with any of this.

      But it does, I admit, worry me when books are judged on the basis of whether or not we have recognised ourselves in it. Emma, of course, is too intelligent a reader to judge the book on the basis merely of the recognition. The recognition itself is interesting, and worth noting: but should it be taken as a criterion of literary merit? Should we judge as superior those books in which we recognised some aspect of ourselves to those in which we didn’t? Here, I must admit I am not convinced.

      I’ll try to address this issue later in a more general reply to all the comments: that’ll save me repeating myself!

      Cheers, Himadri


  2. “Identification” as criticism is a disaster, a massive error. I don’t think anyone will be able to move you (or me) away from that position.

    You have read enough book blogs by now to see the narcissism at the root of a surprising amount of reading. The great question is “Where am I in this book?” And if it turns out I am not in the book, it is a waste of time. Art is a mirror in which I constantly search for myself. What else could possibly be as interesting as me?

    For many readers, the answers to the questions in your second paragraph are Yes, No, No, No, and Yes, we do not admire these works at all and would prefer to never read them or hear about them again.

    Curiously, I just started a novel-like object, Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane, that directly addresses the topic. The narrator describes the way he would imagine himself inside the novels he read as a shadowy additional character, hoping that the female protagonists would fall in love with him. He has to resort to this method because “I had never met up with any young male character with whom I could feel the sympathy needed for such a sharing.” The reader described here is ten years old.

    I do not think Guy is describing Emma’s review correctly. Emma notes resemblances between her own experiences and some aspects of the novel (more about working in Paris than anything about the characters), and even then she moves the discussion away from herself and back on to the book. Her billet is about the book, not about herself.


  3. The few occasions on which I’ve “identified” with a literary character – as in, I have found something of me in him – have not, it seems to me, been good or better experiences than the many novels where I have not. This sense of “identify” seems to me quite close to the sense of “relevant”, which you may or may not have been discussing before.

    I’m more cautious when it comes to “caring about” literary characters. It seems to me that one way I can justify when I like or dislike a novel is whether I “care about” the characters in it. But I’m not entirely sure what I mean by this, since I understand literary characters do not exist and I don’t really care about them at all. I might just as well say the characters are “alive” or “human” or that the author uses certain literary devices which I find “pleasing”. It comes back no doubt to a basic shared humanity, and – in my case at least – an idea of sincerity. Something like that anyway.


  4. Posted by severalfourmany on February 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I certainly identify with what you are saying and can relate to your reaction.

    I am reminded of some comments from blogger Rohan Maitzen from “Julie & Julia: The Reading Group Guide; or, Why English Professors Aren’t Welcome in Book Clubs”

    “Literature is not a popularity contest or a beauty pageant, and characters you hate may be the most important to understanding what a book is doing. “Relatable” characters are usually ones that don’t make us think, that we’re perfectly comfortable, and thus mentally passive, with. And there’s no merit in sympathizing with someone you can “relate to,” after all–no possibility for moral growth.”

    So even though I fully agree with all of you, for the sake of discussion and “moral growth” let me see if I can find in my bag of tools a viable approach to defend this plague of “identifying with characters.”


  5. Sometimes when we identify with a character or situation it can lead to a bypass of our critical faculties. There is a place for books and plays to give us that additional frisson which allows us to believe we could be a part of the book/play/film. I have had such experiences and enjoyed them.
    However, a character doesn’t have to be sympathetic, familiar or even believable to anchor a great book. Surely the purpose of literature, if there be a purpose, is to broaden our understanding of what consciousness is. The demand that characters be ones we can ‘identify with’ always seems tainted with a narrowing of permission of who deserves to exist, to propose a sort of cultural fascism.


  6. I can’t commiserate with your pain … how dare you not recognize that great literature has to have a character that reminds you of your sweet aunt Priya.

    Then again, I recall my own rules and myths of literature as handed down for decades on my humble website. There’s Rule #7: “Uncle Joe and Aunt Mabel were not the models for the characters in the novel you are reading.” And several apropos myths, five in fact:

    “The author probably used your Aunt Martha as the model for his character in the novel.
    “The author wants you to think about Aunt Martha and not waste time thinking about the character in the novel that reminded you of your Aunt.
    “A novel that has at least one character that reminds you of one of your relatives or friends is a superior novel.
    “A novel must have at least one likable character to identify with.
    “Characters in a novel must be believable.”


    • Hello Mike, I have read your list of literary myths on your blog, and it certainly made me smile!

      On the more general points, I will try to absorb all the comments made so far, and try to respond to them. That may have to wait till the weekend, though!


  7. Posted by Caro on February 20, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    I think I could easily talk about identifying with characters. I don’t mean they are likeable or that I like them, necessarily, but that I can understand them, perhaps sympathize with them. There’s very few books with a first-person narration where I wouldn’t be able to feel I was inside their head. Some unreliable narrations, perhaps, but even those often have a character I can ‘identify’ with – the butler in The Remains of the Day, say. The narrator in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is not sympathetic, but there’s still something in her that means you can understand a little what drives her. The books where you might not be able to find a point of identification are the light fluffy ones in a setting unfamiliar (high-powered working environments are what I tend to avoid) with people who seem far shallower than real people are; however I avoid these books, so may be doing them an injustice. Perhaps their characters do have some depth and points where I could find a connection. A good book I read recently was Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce, but parts of it were set in a modelling and partying scene where the protagonists (only the narrator shown in any depth) are only seen in that light and where drug-taking is rife; I found this setting something I didn’t care about, and that wasn’t perhaps portrayed in enough width for the side characters to develop at all. (But I did get an insight into how Ecstacy makes one feel and act which was valuable.)

    I don’t feel that I want to put myself into books (since the books I seem to find most connection to are ones with outsider men/boys as the main protagonists; I seem to empathise with them, but I can’t really identify with them – I have never been a boy), but I do prefer, I think, books with a setting I know. NZ or English or Australian perferably. The last few books I have read have been set in rural southern American or rural Canada and they feel really foreign to me; not the people, since people have the same feelings everywhere, I think, but their surroundings and what affects them – the heat, the type of plants and wildlife, the food. When I am reading these, they almost feel like a caricature of places, since things like hot dogs in American cafes, boll weevils, white trash, are things I know about but don’t expect to encounter. (I have, however, really liked these books. And ones like Khaled Hosseini’s, set in Afghanistan.)

    I don’t think people have any problems identifying with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Himadri. The guilt of getting rid of ‘that damned spot’ is very easy to imagine in oneself as is Macbeth’s greed and desire for power. And that’s what good authors do: they make the deficiencies of their characters seem real and understandable.

    There are books which are excellent, but which have characters that don’t do that and I am not sure how they work, exactly. I am especially thinking of Lolita. I haven’t finished Lolita – I read about 60 pages and put it aside. I can’t seem to find the enthusiam to pick it up again and that, I am sure, is because I can’t stand the company of Humbert, not because of his fetish for girls – I am sure I could, with a different author portraying him a different way, find plenty of sympathy for such a person – but because of his unpleasantness towards all people really, especially women. Perhaps that does mean I am putting myself into the book and gritting my teeth at how I might be thought of and treated by such a person. I don’t know; I just know that I can appreciate this book is very good, but I can’t seem to find any desire to keep reading it, though I wanted to. But that’t the only book I can think of where the main character is so unlikable I don’t want to read more of him. (But I will have said before that I don’t like single focus books and this one is that, too. That probably influences how I have read this – same for Stephen King’s Misery which put me off him forever, and several others.)

    I’m sure this hasn’t helped with what ‘identifying with a character’ means, but it is a few personal thoughts.


  8. Posted by Brian Joseph on February 21, 2013 at 3:12 am

    I think that your definition of identifying with characters essentially hits it on the head. Personally it can add enjoyment to a reading experience. However, I think that it does so in a superficial, almost cheap way. It is kind of like a “fast moving plot”. Such a device can make a story enjoyable. However it is not a necessary ingredient in good fiction . To the contrary, it may actually subtract depth from a story. I think that to some degree modern readers have become accustomed to television shows, movies, and popular fiction where we are bombarded with protagonists who are “just like us”. At the risk of sounding a little snobbish I think that this has marred people’s appreciation for art. It is easier and less challenging to read works like this. Often, like the “fast moving plot”, it is less fulfilling, less thought provoking and aesthetically weak. Kind of like fast food compared to a gourmet meal.

    Like many things there are exceptions to the above. In some instances stories that have characters that one identifies with can have enormous artistic value. An example might be Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, a work that in my opinion has several easy to relate to characters. We are just glutted with too many mediocre and bad examples of this.


  9. I can identify with a character at more than one level. The easy identity is when the character is like me in some important way — same age and stage in life, same problems, same attitudes. That can help to get me into a book, but sometimes does not have much staying power.

    The more important identity is when an author so successfully depicts a character that I feel I understand and accept her life and choices, from the inside as it were. That is the book that is hard to put down.

    When all the major characters in a fictional world are repellant, then I admit I do look for someone I can identify with.


  10. Thanks, everyone, for the comments you’ve all made so far. I don’t think I’ve ever written so short a post that has generated so many comments in such little time!

    I’ll try to absorb all the comments, and reply to them all. And, since these comments do overlap, I’d probably save repeating myself if i were to reply to you all in a single response. But a lunchtime in the office is hardly the right time for this … I’ll get back to you all later, possibly over the weekend.

    Cheers for now, Himadri


  11. I realize that Emma’s post is about the book–not about herself. However, while we both read and enjoyed the book, I think it hit a deeper chord with Emma than it did with me. Is that ‘identification’? Anyway, can’t speak for Emma here, but I found myself annoyed with the character and didn’t ‘identify’ (if that’s the word to use) with her actions and choices, so for me the book was a bit frustrating–at least on some level.


    • It’s an interesting point. Recognition of some aspect of one’s own personal experience can certainly hit a “deeper chord”. Does it make it, however, a more satisfying literary experience? I am inclined to think not, but to be honest, I’m not entirely sure!


      • I think it goes both ways. I read About Schmidt some time ago and became so annoyed with one of the characters, I wanted to shake her and found myself swearing at the pages more than once. This was a really good read for me but it hit no aspects of my personal life at all.

        But then again, if a book does hit those personal chords, perhaps it makes it prescient and engaging.

        Let’s say, for argument’s sake, there’s a fictional book about a morbidly obese woman who manages to lose weight. Would someone who’s gone through a similar type of experience relate to the story more than someone who resembled Twiggy? That doesn’t mean, of course, that skinny people can’t read and enjoy the book, but perhaps they’d understand (from personal experience) what the character is going through.

        All that said, I seem to read a lot of books about the bad behavior of people I wouldn’t tolerate in my ‘real’ life.

        Not sure what that means…

  12. Thank you all for your comments. I hope you don’t mind if I answer you all at the same time. I appear, quite inadvertently, to have touched on the quite serious matter of how we read fiction, and why.

    First of all, I think it is reasonable to say that there can be no wrong reason for liking anything. Well, in most cases, that is: if someone enjoys a crime story because they get a vicarious sadistic thrill out of detailed descriptions of atrocities, then I suppose it could be argued that this is a wrong reason to enjoy. But leaving aside such instances, it is perfectly OK for someone to enjoy, say, a Rembrandt portrait because the subject of the portrait reminds her of her Auntie Mabel. However, the converse does not hold: if one were to dislike a Rembrandt portrait because the sitter does not remind the viewer of anyone he or she personally knows, then that, I think, is not quite so legitimate a reason. While anyone is, of course, perfectly entitled to like or to dislike whatever they want and for whatever reason, the ability to recognise someone one knows in a portrait cannot be considered a legitimate aesthetic criterion.

    As Guy points out, there are many different types of “identification”. We may think to ourselves “If we were in this person’s position, what would we have done?” Or we may fantasise being in a person’s situation, even though we may know ourselves to be very unlike that character. Or we may find ourselves, at certain points, feeling the emotions that the character feels, or wondering what decision we would have made in similar circumstances. All of these, I think, are legitimate reasons for liking a book. But they are not, I think, criteria of literary merit: criticism of a book because “one could not identify with the characters” cannot, I think, be considered legitimate literary criticism.

    Sometimes, we may enjoy the companionship of a character. I don’t think this is to be dismissed either: many authors have, quite deliberately, set out to provide the reader with likable companionship – Fielding’s Tom Jones, for instance. (Fielding also frequently addressed the reader directly, and the authorial presence that emerges is wonderfully companionable – as it was intended to be.) At the other end of the scale, with Humbert Humbert, Nabokov deliberately presents us with an extremely unlikable character: one may, for this reason, not enjoy reading the book, but, while it is perfectly legitimate to not enjoy the book because Humbert Humbert is so unlikable, this cannot be considered a legitimate literary criticism.

    Since the expressions “identify with”, “relate to”, “sympathise with”, “empathise with” are all vaguely defined and often used interchangeably, we should try to define them – at least for the purpose of this discussion. In particular, I think we should distinguish between “sympathy” and “empathy”.

    I’d say we “sympathise” with a character when we acknowledge the legitimacy of how the character perceives, feels, thinks, and acts. By “acknowledging legitimacy”, I do not mean that we necessarily approve morally: but, rather, we feel that that these perceptions, feelings, thoughts and actions are consistent with the aesthetic ends of the work. So, in a novel that sets out to be realistic, say, we must feel that what the character perceives, thinks, feels, and acts are probable, or, at least, possible , given the fictional situation, and given what we know of the character.

    And I’d say we “empathise” when we can feel a oneness with a character, to such an extent that we find ourselves feeling what the character feels.

    By these definitions, we must, I think be able to sympathise before we can empathise; but sympathy does not necessarily lead to empathy. Now, if by “identification”, we mean empathy as described above, I really do not think identification is necessary either to enjoy or to appreciate the work; or even, for that matter, to find oneself emotionally engaged with it.

    Let us consider Macbeth. We certainly do not approve of what Macbeth & Lady Macbeth do, but we may sympathise, as we acknowledge that the perceptions, thoughts, emotions and actions of the Macbeths are consistent with the dramatic situation, and also with the kind of people they are. (Indeed, my model breaks down somewhat here, as we find out the sort of people they are from their thoughts and actions, and not the other way round.) Most of us, I think, don’t go as far as empathy: we don’t feel that we, too, would have killed Duncan had we been in that situation. However, lack of empathy does not inhibit our engagement with the drama. And similarly at the end: as we read it, or see it, we experience terror; but it is not the terror that the Macbeths experience. We sympathise, but we do not empathise. However, this lack of empathy does not prevent our emotional engagement.

    With Humbert Humbert, once again, we sympathise. This does not mean that we approve morally (we clearly shouldn’t); and it doesn’t mean either that we enjoy Humbert Humbert’s company. But, by my definition, we sympathise, because we acknowledge that within the context of the novel, his thoughts and actions are credible – frighteningly credible. The emotions that are engaged are likely to be the emotions of distaste and of horror: not pleasant emotions, admittedly, but emotions nonetheless (literature is not compelled to be pleasant). But by the end of the novel, the emotions that are engaged are quite different. We never go as far as empathising with Humbert Humbert; and certainly, we do not extend to him our moral approval. But I, for one, felt a profound sadness that a human being could be so emotionally and morally stunted as to cut himself off so decisively from the rest of humanity. As with Macbeth, we feel powerful emotions – though these are not the emotions that the character feels. There is sympathy, but no empathy.

    In short, empathy – “identification”, if you will – is not required for emotional engagement; not even for what can often be very profound emotional engagement. Our emotions may be engaged on behalf of people who are morally indefensible – the Macbeths, say, or Humbert Humbert: but while I think we must, in literature as in life, maintain a certain moral compass, we must not look in literature for anything so comfortable as moral reassurance.

    The next question is: “Is emotional engagement required at all?” Here, I frankly throw up my hands, and say “I don’t know”. It is hard to disagree with Seamus that the purpose of literature is to “broaden our understanding of what consciousness is”: this may not be a sufficient or even a necessary criterion, but it is an important one. But there is no reason why our emotions need be engaged to this end. Personally, I cannot think of a single work of fiction that I rate highly that has not engaged my emotions in some way or other; but I do not want to insist upon this point. What I do insist upon, I think, is that identification – in the sense of feeling what the characters feel – is not a prerequisite for emotional involvement in a work; and is most certainly not a criterion of literary merit. One may, of course, choose to like a book because one could “identify”, or to dislike a book because one couldn’t: but either way, this is not, I think, a criterion of literary merit. I am inclined to agree with Tom on this matter: “ ‘Identification’ as criticism is a disaster, a massive error”. I’d just be tempted to change “criticism” to “literary criticism” (which I think Tom meant anyway), just to make it clear. People are entitled to like or dislike whatever they want, and for whatever reason they want: but some reasons are valid literary criticism, some not; and if we are to care about literary quality, we must be careful to distinguish between the two.


  13. Actually, many readers end up empathizing to some degree with Humbert Humbert. They fall into his (and Nabokov’s) expertly laid trap, taking HH’s plea of extenuating circumstances as legitimate, and missing some of the obscure spots where he fails to conceal his cruelty, and pretty soon they empathize not with his pedophilia but with his sense of loss or sense of injustice. Lolita is to some degree about the very question you are asking.

    My answer to Guy, by the way, is no, Emma’s “deeper chord” is not identification with the character. She is clear about that in her piece. “Identification” is the sense that the character is like me, shares my problems or views, and thus should make the choices I would make.

    I can sympathize or even empathize with characters who are in no way like me, have entirely different problems, and make choices I would never make. And in the hands of a skilled writer, I can find myself surprised into sympathy with a character who I would have thought was beyond my capacity for sympathy (as Himadri says, I now acknowledge their legitimacy, at least in the context of the fictional world). I think Himadri’s hierarchy is well-stated, too, that the move to empathy is rarer, but hey, that is one of the miracles of good fiction.

    Have you read As I Lay Dying? In Faulkner’s novel every character makes the wrong decision every time they make a choice. They are amazingly stupid. Yet the novel is superb. Maybe frustration is a good thing, a legitimate aesthetic effect.


    • I am perhaps referring to Emma’s comment on my review of the book. She found the descriptions of the metro very accurate (I have no idea what that would be like) and she mentions knowing someone who lived through a similar experience. I haven’t. Perhaps she just liked the book more than I did as parts of it didn’t quite gel for me.


  14. To be honest I’m not a huge Faulkner fan, but it’s been years since I’ve read any and then that was in a university setting. Perhaps I’d feel differently these days.

    I have a soft spot for books in which people behave badly–all sorts of range there, of course, and I suppose that’s why I like crime novels as much as I do.


    • I read As I Lay Dying quite a few years ago, and I remember loving it. I remember an epic journey through flood and fire, but the participants of the journey aren’t heroes: the fools and madmen. Epic, mock-epic … Call it what you will! I remember the finale as well, where the old an gets a new set of teeth.

      Guy, as an aficionado of crime fiction, what do you think of Sanctuary? I do love Faulkner’s grotesque sense of humour – which is very apparent here – but there does emerge, I think, an almost tangible sense of evil.


      • I’m not a huge fan of Faulkner but that may be influenced in part to the university setting. Perhaps I’d feel differently now…

      • BTW, author James Hadley Chase was accused of pinching Faulkner’s Sanctuary when he wrote NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH–a right royal romp in the cesspool of human behaviour, IMO.

        But then again, I like that sort of thing.

  15. Posted by Mimi on November 9, 2014 at 5:35 am

    Identifying strongly with a character in a novel probably makes the experience different, easier, more instinctive, perhaps more dreamlike or even film-like! (Having a protagonist with whom the audience can “identify” is supposed to make a film more popular and marketable. However, many films, notably art films, flaunt this “rule” with impunity, because they appeal to an audience that can “work” a bit for its satisfaction!)


    • Hello Mimi, and welcome.
      One of the many problems regarding this is that i am not entirely sure what precisely is meant by “identification” in this context. In one of the comments above, I try to clarify a number of different possible meanings.

      Presumably, the quality that allows the reader to “identify” – whatever one means by it – is important for many readers, given the frequency with which books are praised for possessing that quality, or reviled for not possessing it.

      You say:

      Identifying strongly with a character in a novel probably makes the experience different, easier, more instinctive, perhaps more dreamlike or even film-like!

      “Easier”, and “more instinctive”, yes, agreed – although neither quality in itself can, I think, be considered a quality of literary merit. Often, the best literature is difficult, and far from “instrinctive”: it must necessarly ne so, as it takes us to places where our instinct, unguided, won’t. BuT I don’t really see, I must admit, what it is “different” from, or why it should bemore dream-like.

      I think my main point in writing this post (and I did write it a long time ago!) is to make the rather didactic point that whatever pleasures may be afforded by being able to “identfy” with a caharacter, this identification is not a criterion of literary merit.

      All the best, Himadri


  16. Posted by Mimi on November 10, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Yes, thanks so much for the reply. Actually in a roundabout way I was simply agreeing with you, that identification is not necessary for literary merit. (You see, I was trying to compare to screenwriting, where “identification” is often described by gurus as “mandatory” in a well-written script for a popular film. I believe audience Identification with the protagonist is often part of the easy pleasure of popular films and novels. On the other hand, art films and “literary” novels (whose pleasure is generally a bit more aesthetic or intellectual) can do very well with or without it. This is an over-generalization of course.)


    • Hello Mimi,
      It’s perhaps not surprising that screenwriters are recommended to create characters with whom audiences are likely to “identify”. Film-making is an expensive business, and it is obviously important for films to capture as big an audience as they can; and to that end, there’s no doubt a checklist of rules to ensure conformity to certain tried-and-tested norms. I don’t know – I’m only guessing here! But I have had rants elsewhere on this blog about the insipidity and the poor dramatic quality of so much of modern mainstream cinema … I’ll refrain from yet another one!

      Cheers, Himadri


  17. i think perhaps that it is not the role of identification/identify to link with the character as much as the author (and i’m not talking about the narrating point of view style)?


    • Hello Colin,
      You may well be right, but I honestly find it difficult to say, as those who speak if “identifying” rarely define clearly what they mean, leaving us to try to guess. And even if they mean identifying with the author, I’d argue that it is possible to admire the writing without “identifying” (whatever that means!) with the author!
      Best wishes,


  18. Posted by Sem ten Haaf on January 12, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    In my opinion identification or the amount to which the audience relates to a character is somewhat important. If you look at the story in a classical way the plot is often driven by character. This comes from the fact that a character has a need and a want. The need is often portrayed in the form of a fundamental weakness within the character that he or she needs to solve. Want is basically what the character wants to achieve and in great stories is also, in the end, the solution to the need, even though the character itself might not realize it. The want also often drives the plot and the need is often an example of a certain theme. If you look at Lord of the Rings frodo’s want is to destroy the ring and in this drives the story.
    Us humans relate to characters through their weaknesses because we all have them and we all strive to improve them. In that way, a well written character will function as a roadmap or an inspiration to solve our own weaknesses.
    In my opinion you’re absolutely right about the fact that a character doesn’t have to be likeable at all. I do think that often a character being relatable results in the audience liking the character whether their actions where good or bad. It simply means they like the character because they can learn from it.
    If the main character was missing a need or a want and thus become unrelatable the audience would become less invested in the story because they can’t learn from it. They’re just looking at a character chasing after a certain goal (the want) without internal motivation (the need).
    That’s just my opinion. Curious to hear what others think of this!


    • Hello, and thank you for your comment. And apologies for having taken so long to get back to you.

      One of the problems I have when readers complain about a book that they “could not identify with the characters” is that they’re never specific about what they mean by that. What exactly is meant by “identifying with a character”? It could simply mean that they like the character. Or it could mean tat they morally approve of the character. Or it could mean that they find it easy to imagine themselves feeling and thinking and acting as the character does. Or it could mean that they share the emotions felt by the character. These thigs don’t all mean the same thing, and there could be various shades in between. So I think when people speak of “identifying with a character”, they need to be more specific.

      Yes, you’re right of course, that plots are often (perhaps always) driven by characters’ wants or needs. But is it necessarily detrimental to the novel (or the play, or short story, or whatever) if the reader doesn’t, say, approve of these needs and wants? Or if the reader cannot imagine having these same needs and wants for his or her own self? Why should it?

      You say: “If the main character was missing a need or a want and thus become unrelatable the audience would become less invested in the story because they can’t learn from it.” But why should learning from a book be regarded as a criterion of its quality?

      The main thing, I think, is that the reader should be interested in a character, but I don’t think that’s quite the same as identifying with the character – whatever that may mean. And whether or not the reader is interested is a reflection of the reader at least as much as it is of the book.

      Best wishes, Himadri


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