After a silence of several minutes, he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began: “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Of course he does.
This is my umpteenth time reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and therefore the umpteenth time 19th century superhunk Fitzwilliam Darcy has declared his love for me, despite my rudeness at our first meeting.
Wait, that’s Elizabeth Bennet.
Characters in fiction, whether the medium be film, theatre or literature, have the ability to capture our imagination and transport us out of space, time and even body, moving us to tears, evoking riotous laughter or making us feel as though we’re another person altogether.
Although an active suspension of disbelief is encouraged in the viewing of movies or the reading of books, someone would seem to be taking that advice to the extreme in crying over the death of a person who never really existed, or finding themselves wishing a handsome, high-collared man would show up at their friend’s cottage in Rosings Park.
But Edward Lobb, a professor of English literature at Queen’s, said my devotion to Darcy is understandable.
“Austen, as I recall, presents Darcy as having it all—he’s good looking, he’s intelligent, he’s decent—those are attractive qualities in any person,” he said. “I think the reader’s imagination fills in a lot of the rest. Every young woman who read that book probably wanted to marry a handsome, intelligent and decent man before reading it.”
Lobb said the ability of a reader to connect with a character owes much to the author’s methods of creating and describing that character.
“I think it depends entirely on the skill of the person who is trying to cause you to have that identification,” he said. “I think a good writer or a good filmmaker can create that link, even to the point of causing you to feel sympathy towards a character who is unattractive in many ways—dishonest or morally compromised, repellent or even criminal.”
Indeed, many of the famous characters in literature are the evil ones. Psychologists have suggested this may be due to subconscious desires on behalf of the reader to break the rules in the manner their favourite “bad guys” of fiction can. By reading about transgressive acts and connecting with the perpetrator of these acts, the reader can theoretically commit crimes via fictional proxy.
“People have pointed out that Satan in Paradise Lost is a significantly more engaging character than God,” Lobb said. “Because God is God—he’s flawless. That’s hard to relate to. Whereas Satan is ambitious, crafty—he’s an underdog. There are a lot of things that cause people to identify with him. William Blake said Satan was the real hero of Paradise Lost, and I think a lot of people would agree with that.”
Jill Jacobson, an associate professor of psychology at Queen’s, agreed that a certain element of roleplay was likely involved, but said readers are drawn to deviant characters because we are naturally attracted to things outside the norm.
“We always think more about things that are surprising or things that are negative, so these characters are going to draw our attention because what they’re doing they should not be doing. It’s unexpected, so we’re going to think more about these people.”
And its not just angsty teenagers or lonely spinsters fawning over fictional characters.
“I get disturbed when people attribute that empathy to unsatisfying social lives,” Jacobson said. “It’s not just the lonely or the shy who can identify with characters.”
Jacobson said identification with a fictional character was actually a positive sign.
“It’s actually a good indication that people have a sense of empathy,” she said. “Just because it’s fictional doesn’t mean we can’t get drawn into it and relate to it. We start to worry when people don’t have that capacity for empathy—that’s one of the hallmarks of psychopathy.”
Certain famous characters, such as Pip from Great Expectations, are attractive to readers because of their ability to change aspects of themselves.
“The opportunity to change who you are, to know that birth isn’t destiny, that is a very comforting and exciting thing for a lot of readers,” Jacobson said. “Characters that can do this are the ones that capture our imaginations—it’s a tremendous fantasy.”
In The Independent’s 2005 feature “100 Favourite Fictional Characters as chosen by 100 Literary Luminaries,” Ken Follet, author of White Out, gave his reason for choosing James Bond: “I read Casino Royale when I was 12. It changed my life,” he said. “Bond knew about all that intrigued me: cars, cocktails, guns and most of all, girls.”
Jacobson said that readers become attracted to different stories at different times in their lives.
“I loved Catcher in the Rye when I was 12. I re-read it recently and it just didn’t resonate with me anymore. Certain stories capture you in your youth that as you age, you lose interest in.”
In order to craft realistic, grounded characters readers will be able to relate to or sympathize with, some authors make detailed charts or fact sheets containing background information on the character’s habits, family history or personality traits that may or may not be used overtly in the work. Another technique for forging a quick connection with the reader is first person narration, wherein the main character of the story is also the person telling it.
Lobb said the elimination of narrative distance between the reader and the character can be an asset in creating sympathy, but isn’t always necessary.
“A really great writer can do it whether or not he or she is using the first- or third-person voice,” he said. “But I think a first-person voice does create an immediate sort of bond, because it is as if this person is talking to you directly, and unless that person is really repellent, we usually give people who take the time to talk to us some benefit of the doubt.”
But there can only be so many Holden Caufields or Darcys in the world of fiction. Lobb said a work owes its popularity over time to the relatability of its characters.
“Fiction and drama are based around characters, so if there isn’t some kind of identification there, I don’t see how it could move large numbers of people and that’s really what causes books to endure.”
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