Monday, February 18, 2008

I don't need you to be me

I don't need you to be me. I woke up thinking that. (Blame it on weird dreams.)

There is always much discussion about "otherness" in children's literature. Do readers need to see themselves in the books they read? Is the reason fiction works because you hook yourself into the main character's psyche and go along for the ride? And if you can't make that initial leap, then is the reading experience doomed from the start?

But what makes you leap into the story? Do you think: Oh! that character's just like me! I would do that! Or is it the opposite: why on earth would a character think that? Do that? Say that?

Or are there degrees of "otherness" that come into play? I know I get impatient with characters who worry about things that I think are trivial. But I don't mind a bit if they do things I would never do, like shave my head.

I don't need you to be me. But I need me to be able to be you for just a little while. Is that the answer?


  1. In order to care about a character, I need to see something I recognize but also something that interests me. As an example, one reason I liked An Abundance of Katherines so much is that I identify with Colin's inability to deal with aspects of daily life that everyone else seems to find simple, but I am interested in him because of his love of math and anagramming in his head. (I am insanely jealous of anyone who can anagram in his or her head. I have to have paper. This is part of my problem with math, too.) Or the reason I love The Princess Diaries is because I identify with Mia's obsessing over everything in her journal, but I am interested in her because she is a princess who goes to a private school in New York City, which is as opposite a background to mine as you could find.

  2. Did you listen to Cat Stephens before you went to bed???


    The more I read for review and awards -- books I would never otherwise pick up with weird covers and disinteresting or actively repellent plots, the more I realize that readers identify with a single element in a character and are able to enter into their world. I think that realization has helped me create characters less like myself, and to identify with books I might not otherwise have enjoyed.

    There are still degrees of enjoyment, and sometimes you overlap (imagine a Venn diagram) on more points than others, but definitely I don't need to be just like the character in order to "get" them.

    Maybe I can still be me and not them yet be enough like them to care...

    mi centavos dos.

  3. I find if I cannot connect with a character, I don't care what happens to that character. Stories have to be interesting though, and to do that they must stray from what most of us would consider "normal."

    The best type of formula would have to be equal parts of familarity and adventure. Bring the reader in, then bring them on a roller coaster!

  4. My quick answer: The voice and how the character evolves is what keeps me reading, regardless of whether I identify with the character or not.

    This is a good question and now I'm off to think about this.

  5. I don't need a protagonist to be me any more than I need my friend to be me. Or even like me.

    A workable protagonist, for me, is my friend. Simply that. If I don't like them, and they're not my friend, I may not persevere with the book.

    There are many characters I love in whom I see almost nothing of me. That, often, is the attraction!

  6. "But I need me to be able to be you for just a little while"

    This suggestion has only just sunk into my head. Yes, that's it. For some reason we need to be able to become other people through fiction. Maybe because that's how we discover hidden parts of ourselves. A complete, TRUE depiction of a human being wouldn't be possible in fiction (for one thing, it would look totally implausible and inconsistent). But fictional characters are the essential vitamins our living personalities need.

  7. I need to be able to connect with a character, whether because they're like me or because they intrigue me, I think mostly though I need characters to be believable within the reality of the narrative

  8. What I need is you to be someone else so that I can get out of my head, where I'm stuck. I need you to have something about you that I recognize, but I don't have to like it. I need to believe that somewhere, out there, you could exist. Everything else is negotiable.

  9. Thank you all for letting me listen in on your thoughts. I got to be you---for the length of your comment, anyway. :)

    So interesting, all these responses, and they keep coming. I'm not that analytical when I'm creating a character, but these ideas might help when I'm revising to make a character more compelling or trying to figure out why a character ISN'T hooking the reader like he/she should.

  10. Hmm...I don't have to read about a character who's just like me--not at all. But I do tend to be less invested in characters (or even turned off by them) if I keep finding myself questioning their motives, wondering "Why on earth would anybody do that? Who in the world acts like that or thinks like that?"

    So I guess consistency and realism and sincerity of motives and personality is what I find important, more than whether or not I have a lot in common with a character. As far as writing goes, though, I have a lot of trouble writing from the perspective of a character who's TOO different from me. Maybe that's something I need to practice, though...

    Thanks for a great question!!


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