Story Psych: A Question of Character

Since I’ve talked a bit about how psychology and appreciation of stories might interact, I thought it’d be interesting to consider something many people mention first when talking about a story: characters. Sometimes a great protagonist or villain can raise up an otherwise mediocre story. Sometimes a plot that sounded fascinating gets bogged down by cardboard characters. And, of course, readers don’t all agree: a character one finds impressive another may find repulsive, and vice versa.

Why is that, and what factors might make a character more or less appealing? Psychologists have suggested that for readers to care about characters, they need to react to them as if they were friends or enemies.  So let’s start by examining what makes us like other people in our lives.

When it comes to first impressions, it might not shock you to find out that appearance plays a large role in how likable people consider a new acquaintance. Psychologists have found that both men and women consistently assume people they consider physically attractive to also be more intelligent, friendly, and successful than those they find less attractive, even when judging based solely on photographs or video. This undoubtedly has an effect on viewers’ impressions of characters brought to life on the screen, whether in TV or movies. But since many readers form images of stories as they read, a character who’s described in a way that gives the reader a physically attractive image of him or her when s/he’s introduced may appear immediately appealing in other ways as well.

Our like for other people, on first meeting them, is also often based on associations. If a person’s appearance or manner reminds us of someone whose company we already enjoy, we tend to get a positive feeling, whereas if the person reminds us of someone we’ve had an unpleasant experience with, we may avoid him or her automatically. So a character who who reminds you of your best friend is more likely to get a thumbs up than one who reminds you of your ex.

Setting plays a role as well. People tend to have better feelings about others they’ve met in pleasant circumstances than those they were introduced to in an awkward situation. Which means you may like one character more than another simply because one was introduced while you were reading in a comfortable chair at home and the other while trying to tune out an obnoxious conversation on the bus. But I think it also suggests that (perhaps unsurprisingly) characters’ actions have a large effect on how we feel about them, because their actions dictate what sort of circumstances we see them in. For example, I often hear readers complain about a character who makes stupid decisions and gets into desperate situations. Normally desperate situations would be a good thing, but if they’re the sort of trouble that the reader can easily see could be avoided, instead of enjoyment they only feel frustrated—frustration which is usually turned on the character who brought the trouble about. 

Of course, we don’t see what sort of trouble a person stirs up until we move past that first impression. Especially in storytelling, first impressions don’t last very long. And once people get to know someone, their opinion tends to be based on very personal factors—personal to them, not the one they’re getting to know. Studies show that despite the common saying “Opposites attract,” people almost always like others who share their opinions, attitudes, and interests more than those who don’t. In fact, finding out someone has a major difference from you can make you dislike them, even if you’re not consciously aware of the cause. Knowing someone agrees with you or would act the same way in a given situation validates your own personality and choices, whereas differences can feel like a criticism.

Consider your favorite characters. How many of them have similar values and beliefs to yours? How many have ideals that are very different? I suspect you’ll find most are quite alike, just as the people you enjoy hanging out with in real life probably share many of your opinions and interests.

Readers’ beliefs and values affect how they judge characters in other ways, too. Research into empathy with fictional characters suggests that people tend to like characters they see as doing “good” and dislike those who do “bad.”  But of course good and bad are relative terms, depending on the morals of the reader (or viewer).  In addition, everyone has certain preconceptions about other people based on various characteristics, which can include anything from job to hair style. We also have certain expectations of the sorts of characters we will encounter in different types of stories based on past exposure to those genres. 

When observing another person’s behavior, our perceptions are filtered through those preconceptions and expectations and color our interpretations of their motives. Someone who believes all cops are corrupt, for example, may immediately condemn a police officer character who accepts a bribe, while someone who believes policing is one of the most honorable professions might assume that character has a good reason even before finding out what it is. A character who has qualities many people associate with a positive stereotype will likely have an easier time finding fans (even if they have to do some less-than-savory things) than a character who fits a negative one.  Even characters who don’t fit a clear stereotype have to make a good impression quickly.  Once people start liking a character based on their initial impressions, they usually want to hold on to those feelings, and so they judge the character’s later actions more favorably than those of a character they initially disliked.

Finally, people tend to like others who are willing to open up to them and disclose intimate information. Researchers have theorized that this is because it makes us feel trusted and appreciated, which most people find rewarding. It stands to reason, then, that readers will invest themselves more in characters who are willing to reveal their secrets and vulnerabilities, either directly to the reader in first person narration or indirectly through thoughts and dialogue. A character who is too closed off may seem to be holding readers at a distance, acting cold or distrustful, which we may not enjoy any more from a fictional being than we do when an actual person appears to snub us.

Those are just some of the basic ways our psychological make-up can affect which characters we love and which rub us the wrong way. In the next Story Psych post, I’ll examine the psychological basis for attraction to a particular, popular character type.

Megan Crewe is a Canadian young adult author whose first novel, Give Up the Ghost, was recently published by Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.


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