I taught a class recently and we looked at some openings to novels. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, for example, masterfully provides the reader with a ton of information about Holden Caulfield in the very first page or so but without you realising. It informs you on two levels: the details of his life but more importantly how he feels about it. So, in a very short space of time, you’re following the story of a fully realised human being.
By contrast, the opening of the first Harry Potter is peopled by cartoon characters like the Dursleys. Mrs has a long neck which is, apparently, useful for looking into the neighbours’ gardens; Mr is fat and no-necked with a large moustache and therefore a villain in the making, and so on. Harry, when he appears, is not much better.
Which, if true, raises an obvious question: why do millions and millions of people like Harry Potter? Plenty of people like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ too, of course, but not with the same fanatical devotion. And these are fans who don’t just love the book, in some cases they vigorously attack anyone who doesn’t (as can be seen for example on Amazon customer review discussion threads).
One view might be that children prefer characters they can identify with and that’s easier to do when their fictional hero leaves plenty of space on the inside. And it could be true the same principle also applies to a lot of Harry’s adult fans, too. It would certainly explain the attacks on the non-believers, as if it’s the fan him/herself that’s being criticised, not a fictional character.
This response wouldn’t work with Holden Caulfield, because he is too well-formed. Harry, by contrast, is not only vacant for the most part, he doesn’t appear to have much motivation for what he does. Similarly, the world he lives in appears to be driven by random magic and random morality. We’re never told why Harry is the good guy and Voldermort the baddie. Not in terms that would explain their character at any rate, and or would begin to fill in the space. Which means readers are free to take with them their own feelings about magic, and good vs evil, and why friendships happen, and thereby become part of the book.
You don’t really join ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. However, I’d argue that if you open yourself to it, then, rather than you filling the empty spaces in Holden Caulfield, his emotional journey touches similar emotions in you. So, in a sense, the book gets inside you, not the other way around.
But of course that can be dangerous. Putting yourself in Harry and his world is safe, because it’s never going to challenge what’s driving you. You can take the theme park ride through the exterior scenes, inside its world but not its world inside you.
So, I believe identifying with characters has two main aspects to it: either you occupy the empty centre of the character, like putting on a super hero suit for a party, which means the character doesn’t really exist, he’s just a fantasy vehicle, or you identify with the character’s difficult moral choices, and the dilemmas he has to face.
With the latter, you don’t occupy him so to speak, instead you walk alongside him and encounter the same awful turning points, torturous embarrassments, long dark nights of the soul that he does.
I’d argue that the first, while appearing to be the more immersive option is actually a way of muting the emotional punch of the story. But the second, while apparently less involved, is actually the braver option, emotionally.
It’s similar with fans: they wear the same costumes as their heroes, and they learn every adventure inside out that those heroes have ever had. But what they perhaps don’t do is use the example of the hero as a starting point for their own emotional adventures.
And if the hero ever entered that fan room and found it full of people wearing his clothes and striking his poses, and if he was looking for someone who could actually join him on a new, so far unscripted, adventure, would he choose any of them? Or would he instead, scan the edges of the room and see the quiet one in a dark corner, dressed normally but returning his gaze with the same self-generated intensity, unnoticed by the others?
There are more fans than corner-huggers, of course. And that presents the writer with a dilemma. Does he try to produce characters that can be easily identified with or does he instead work to create people who are full of purpose and who will make it possible for the reader to join them, in spirit if not in the flesh, but not to take them over and be them the way a lot of readers most want them to be?
Just to complicate things, it’s a lot of fun being a fan. You get out and meet other fans, and have a good time at conventions. Being a corner-hugging solo reader who doesn’t get to put on his superhero tights and cape requires more, well, self-sustainability perhaps. As with all things, there are prices to pay on both sides of the line. And if you want to be an effective writer you have to be willing to pay them both, constantly.