Cognitive scientists generally agree that our engagement with a fictional character is a major source of our emotional experience while viewing a film. Yet, the nature of such engagement is under a controversy.
According to popular belief, we "identify" with the protagonist of the story. We are angry when injustice is done to the protagonist as if it was done to us. We are saddened when the main character loses his loved one as if we lost our own. Our heart pumps when our hero is chased by a ruthless killer as if our own life is at stake. This seem obvious. Until you really think about it.
Identification can mean many different things. In the psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer's identification with the hero is considered to take the form of an illusion that one is the character in the movie. In more modern theories, identification is often described as mental simulation of another person. According to the simulation theory of philosophy of mind, we simulate other people's mind by going "off-line" from our normal mental lives and adopting the target person's beliefs (i.e. the knowledge and representation of the world), desires, and even at least some aspects of his personality. If the simulation is successful, we end up with the right emotional outcome of the target person in the given situation (correctly imagined, if not actually felt). Many scholars, Oatley, Feagin, Walton, and Currie to name a few, believe that appreciating works of fiction involves simulating characters' actions, goals, plans and emotions in this manner.
However, there are compelling arguments against this view. Noel Carroll (2008) points out that the viewer often has quite a different emotion from the character in the film. When the heroine is sound asleep as the killer approaches her with a dagger, we don't experience her peaceful oblivion but our own fear for her. When we watch Alfred Hitchcock's hero in Vertigo climb the stairs to the top of the bell tower, what we feel is not fear of height but a concern for the man who has such fear. In watching Saving Grace by Sisch, we may feel sadness and admiration for Grace who is separated from her loved ones to complete a mission for saving the humanity, but we don't simulate her love for Dylan. Do we? Dolf Zillman's (1991) example of children shouting to the TV screen, "Watch out," as well as the same internal urge of adult viewers, testify for the gap between the point view of the viewer and that of the character. Therefore, Ed Tan (1996) says we usually experience the events in the film as "passive observers," rather than in the character's shoe. In Carroll's term, sympathy and solidarity, not empathy, are the main source of the viewer emotion. We don't imagine being the characters, but we feel concerns for them as a separate individual, and we feel strong affiliations with them.
This sounds convincing to me. But does this mean identification/simulation does not happen at all while we watch a movie? Amy Coplan (2004) contends that it is possible for us to experience the belief, desire, and emotion of the character while having our own separate belief, desire, and emotion at the same time. In other words, we can have empathy through simulation and sympathy as a passive observer all at the same time, and the fact that we have third-person emotions while watching a movie (as Carroll points out) does not mean we can't have an empathetic engagement with the character. In fact, Gaut contends that sympathy and empathy reinforce each other. The more sadness you feel in empathizing with Grace, the more concern you may feel for her.
At this point, I wish I had some solid empirical evidence on this matter. Unfortunately, I find solid scientific studies on this subject scarce at best. My general feeling is that our emotional experience during film viewing largely consists of sympathy and solidarity (the emotions as passive observers). But aren't there sparks of moments when we actually feel what the character feels as if we were her? Or is this a mere illusion?
Anyway, what does all this mean to machinima makers?
If you believe in empathy through simulation, you may consider enhancing the viewers' empathetic engagement with your character by aiding their simulation process and make it easier for them. This may mean minimizing potential gaps between your viewers and the protagonist in terms of their beliefs, desires, and personalities (so that the viewer's own mental state would not compete too much with those of the character during the simulation process). This would mean creating characters that resemble the viewers as closely as possible, and advancing the story from your protagonist's point of view.
If you believe that third-party emotions dominate the film viewing experience, you may consider experimenting with a variety of things. You may intentionally create gaps between the viewer and the character, and play with it to rouse different sympathy reactions in the viewer, ranging from concern to suspense. A good use of antagonist may facilitate solidarity between the viewer and the protagonist. Characters radically different from the viewers in term of their beliefs, desires, and personalities would not be in the way of evoking sympathy in the audience, as long as they are likeable.
To me these sound like valid strategies for making your story more engaging and appealing, and something to think about as a student of the craft of fiction writing. But in the end, we want works of fiction to do more than simply rousing our sympathetic reactions to a third person or getting us empathetically engaged with somebody just like us. We want books and movies to give us an opportunity to live the lives of the others, letting us experience the world from different perspectives and, perhaps, even with completely different souls. Do they ever succeed, or is it all just an illusion?
Or perhaps giving the viewer an illusion of an empathetic engagement with somebody radically different from himself is what a story-teller should strive to achieve. Creating an illusion of empathy sounds like a good topic for a future blog.
Carroll, N. (2008). Affect and the moving image. In N. Carroll, The Philosophy of motion pictures (p. 146-191). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Coplan, A. (2004). Empathic engagement with narrative fictions. The journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism (62) 2, 141-152.
Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. Simith (Eds.), Passionate Views: Film, cognition, and emotion (p. 200-216). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Zillmann, D (1991). Empathy: affect from bearing witness to the emotion of others. In J. Byrant & D. Zillman (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135-167). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.