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Q&A

Do readers primarily identify with or judge heroes in a novel?

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In this article about different categories of heroes, Matt Bird states that sensitive and unlucky heroes are hard to write because audiences have a hard time caring about them. He says:

"Americans are hard-wired to hate losers... If I were to ask you, 'who’s more sympathetic, a homeless guy or a CEO?', most people would say the homeless guy. The problem, I think, is that moviegoers aren’t looking at snapshots, we’re living with someone. We’re not being asked to judge them, we’re being asked to identify with them, and if you asked people which of those two they’d rather share their lives with, you’d probably get a different answer."

This is all in context of movie scripts. But I'm wondering if the same is true of novels. I know that I never consciously put myself in the place of the hero or imagine them as a real person, a friend, or a stand-in for myself. But do most readers do this? And even if not, do they somehow still identify with the hero such that proactive, competent, or enviable heroes are better at creating the fantasy that pulls many readers in?

And what does this say about role-model heroes whom we love because they inspire us? What about everyman heroes? Anti-heroes?

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I wrote a blog post a little while back about what it means for a reader to identify with a protagonist: https://gmbaker.net/avatar-friend-and-shrink-three-modes-of-reader-intimacy/

I identified three modes of engagement:

  • Avatar -- the reader lives vicariously through the character (looking out through their eye)

  • Friend -- the reader goes on an adventure with the character (looking at the same things side by side, but also at them)

  • Shrink -- the reader psychanalyses the character (looking into their head)

I suspect that Bird is right if we assume engagement in avatar mode, which is often the case for pulp fiction today.

But he is not right if we assume friend mode, which I take to be the traditional mode of literature.

He is also not right if we assume shrink mode, which is common in literary fiction, for instance.

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