Monday, July 26, 2010

How to make your character more relatable?

It was about a year ago that I first wrote about empathy and identification in relation to fiction in this blog. A year and many mega-bytes of downloaded articles later, the problem still captivates me. (That's the thing about being in school. You have access to research articles so that you can waste your non-school time on them.) I'm kinda making my way to my own view on this matter, and hopefully, I will write it all up in one neat paper someday... (I've learned recently that I'm an incorrigible dreamer. And I thought I was just young.) Until then, I'm jutting down some ideas in my other blog.

Anyways, just as I read and think about empathy and identification as an academic subject, I'm also dealing with the same problem as a practical matter in my writing. The question is how to make my character easier for the audience to relate to.

Maurice Field, the protagonist of my feature-length noir/sci-fi script, is a hard-to-know character by design. He is a repressed man shrouded in mystery. (The story is about his journey to discover his inner self). Especially because the story is about Maurice's personal and internal struggle, it is crucial that the viewer builds a strong bond with him from early on. So here is the conundrum: How do you get the viewer to connect with a character like Maurice, who lives in a shell within a shell?

In the following, I go through some miscellanies and sundries in the attic of my mind in search of potential solutions to the problem of creating an "identifiable" character:
  • A popular trick - the puppy factor. Here is an old screenwriters' trick: Have your protagonist rescue a puppy (or do something to that effect) early in the story. The viewer goes "awwww..." and your protagonist will have an easy ride from then on. [[Note to self: Should I just get over with the feeling that this is a cheap trick and adopt the method?]]

  • An even cheaper trick - a desirable hero. According to psychoanalytic theories of cinema, the viewer wants to "identify" with a desirable character. They watch a film for that illusion of being the hero on the screen. I'm not a big fan of this theory. I think the presence of such an illusion is an illusion. But still, I can't deny there's something in this old adage. It is of no doubt easier to form a fast alliance with a handsome, intelligent, successful, and loved person than with somebody who is average, unpleasant and lonely. [[Note to self: True, my protagonist Maurice is not a hero, but a very much flawed character. Still, perhaps I can emphasize some of his attractive traits to charm the audience?]]

  • "Just like me." But here is yet another old adage: The viewer needs to feel the protagonist is "just like" him. This sounds contradictory to aforementioned psychoanalytic theories. Surprise... Perhaps the trick is to make viewers feel that the hero, while possessing highly desirable qualities, is still very much like them in a certain regards. Is that why Superman had to have an alter ego of an ordinary nerd and Spiderman needed to be an actual geek? [[Note to self: Is Maurice simply too different from the living people of the world? Is his problem something too esoteric for today's movie-goers? Let's just hope not. If they're not and the script is still salvageable, what I need to do might be to create a few moments in which the audience can see that Maurice is just like them in a certain very concrete and specific way. Hm, like what?]]

  • Identification fostered by its subcomponents. Gaut (1999) suggests that seeing what the character sees (perceptual identification) and knowing what the character knows (epistemic identification) help the viewer form a full-fledged identification with the character. According to this view (which lacks any type of proper support but sounds plausible), imposing the character's perceptual and epistemic point of view on the viewer will help him to connect with the character. (Is this how we formed a bond with the protagonist of Memento?) [[Note to self: My script probably is fairly strong on this front.]]

  • Empathy through sympathy. Gaut (1999) also suggests that sympathy (the emotional response to another people's suffering) and empathy (the emotional response to "identifying" with another person) enforce each other. This is another of Gaut's claims that was never properly supported but sounds reasonable. If you feel for somebody in distress, you are likely to align yourself with him, and that probably is a good position to initiate the process of "identification." If this is true, you might want to make your character suffer so that he would earn the viewer's sympathy. Pathetic, isn't it? [[Note to self: Maurice suffers plenty already. But in order to get the audience's sympathy, his suffering needs to be apparent and external. Maurice's internal suffering will appeal to viewers only after they have established a sufficient connection with him. Can sympathy be one way to get there?]]

  • Having the viewer invest their interest in the character. I'm thinking about the very first episode of Mad Men. You can see from the get-go that Don Draper is not a good man. But he is interesting enough to keep you watching to learn more about him. So you invest your time and attention on him. What a good film does is luring the viewer to invest more by rewarding him just enough at the just right times (Tan, 1997). I suspect such cognitive investments could translate to emotional ones. Wouldn't it be natural that we get attached to somebody on whom we had devoted our time and energy? [[Note to self: I tried make Maurice an attractive puzzle, but did I succeed?]]

  • A tricky trick. In a study by Davis, Conklin, Smith and Luce (1996), some college students were asked to take the perspective of the character while watching short movies (by imagining the perspective of the character, or imagining themselves to go through what the character is going through), while others were asked to just watch the character. The perspective-taking subjects were found to ascribe more of their own personal traits to the character (particularly the positive ones) compared to the non-perspective-taking subjects*. In interpreting their findings, Davis et al. suggested that the act of taking another person's perspective involves "repeatedly activat[ing] some or all of the observer's self-schema" (p. 722). They called this process "merging of self." If only a writer can find a way to lead the viewer to engage in perspective-taking rather than simple spectating... Another interesting finding of Davis et al. is that when people watched movies under a significant cognitive burden (when they were asked to remember a nine-digit number while watching the movie), the observed difference between the perspective-taking and non-perspective-taking subjects disappeared. This suggests that a brainteaser (such as this noir/sci-fi script of mine) may have an inherent difficulty in fostering viewer "identification" and "empathy."
* More precisely, the perspective-taking subjects used higher proportions of the adjectives they used to describe themselves when describing the character, compared to the non-perspective taking subjects. The overall overlap between the words used to describe the character and those used to describe self was similar across conditions.

Work cited

Davis, M.H., Conklin, L., Smith, A., & Luce, C. (1996). Effect of perspective taking on the cognitive representation of persons: A merging of self and other. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 713–726.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (eds.). Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion. 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.