Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What Makes Us Like Characters?

Have you ever wondered what makes us like certain characters and dislike others? Of course you have. There seem to be a lot of possible explanations offered, everything from our opinion of the actor to the morality of the character. But in the end, I think it comes down to one thing: we like characters who display personality traits we wish we had, and we dislike those who display traits that annoy us.

Let’s start with the idea that our opinion of a character will be determined by our opinion of the actor. Hollywood bets heavily on this, and there is some truth to it. Indeed, our goodwill to an actor can translate into goodwill toward the characters they play. But few actors generate much goodwill. Moreover, while this can translate to the character, that isn't always true. For example, our goodwill toward Harrison Ford may make us inclined to like Han Solo, but it likely would not improve our opinion of Humbert in Lolita, should Ford play that role.

Further, the fact that different actors can play the same character tells us that the identity of the actor actually isn't all that important to the character. Indeed, in general, unless the choice of actor interferes with our perceptions of the character, e.g. they are physically inappropriate like Truman Capote as Rambo or they bring negative baggage like Michael Moore, then any actor should be able to play almost any character. That means it is something other than the actor which decides our views of the character.

So what is it then about the character that matters? Liberals suggest that we like those who are most like us, and fear those who are different. Thus, they would (and do) suggest we like characters who are similar to us, e.g. whites don't like black characters. Of course, this goofy theory of oppressionology falls apart once you realize that movies don’t attract audiences that are identical to the demographics of their characters, and that whites have accepted actors like LL Cool J and Ice Cube, and Americans have accepted foreign actors, and even males and females seem to like each other.

Traditionalists argue that we like characters based on morality issues. Thus, we like characters who act morally and dislike characters who act immorally. But that falls apart right away as well. We like Darth Vader, and he’s hardly a good guy; even before the lousy prequels, Vader was evil, tyrannical, and also a lapdog for a truly unlikeable Emperor. We liked Max von Sydow in Needful Things, even though he played the devil. . . a generally difficult character to like. And there are a bunch of characters who are paragons of moral virtue that we just can’t stand.

Heist films present an excellent example to consider. We like Danny Ocean, even though he’s immoral, and even though we would vote to convict him if we sat on a jury. Indeed, we love all the bank robbers, the schemers, and the fraudsters, but only on film. . . not in real life. And even on film, there is a fine line: the moment they cease being hip or cool, and instead become murderous or rotten, we suddenly stop liking them. Tony Soprano was cool, Phil Leotardo was not, even though both did the same acts. And what is the difference between these two?

Consider this. We like to live vicariously through films and books; they are our fantasy worlds. And in our fantasies, we want to see ourselves as better than we currently are. Thus, we prefer characters that have the traits we wish we did. We want Darth Vader’s power to terrorize. We want Danny Ocean’s cool. We want characters who are under control, funny, sexy, smart, strong, interesting, and a whole host of other things we admire or yearn to be. And when we find characters who have these traits, we like them. On the other hand, when we find characters with traits we find annoying either in ourselves or in our day-to-day lives, we dislike those characters. Thus, we don't like characters who are whiners or weaklings, who suffer from indecision, or who are vindictive, petty or arrogant. These are traits we see every day and which we want to escape.

I think this is what determines whether or not we like characters. It's not the morality of the characters or their actions or what they look like, nor is it the actor who plays them. What makes us like or dislike characters are the traits the characters possess that we either aspire to or which annoy us. In fact, I would go one step further and even suggest that these are the same reasons we like/dislike particular actors.

Thoughts?

28 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

There is something called a "Q" rating used to determine popularity of on air personalities. Attractiveness usually helps, as well as a feeling the personality actually cares about you. Genuineness may play a part as well.

Two great examples from the world of sports. These may not be perfect fit for dramatic characters, but I suspec there is some similarity.

Arnold Palmer is universally beloved. He had the ability to work a crowd of strangers while pumping their hand and looking you straight in the eye and making you feel you had his undevided attention and he cared specifically about you. In reality, he was a guy who cheated on his wife (just like Tiger) and could probably care less about you, but oh that charisma.

Mike Schmidt, hall of famer, World Series and National League MVP is a great family man and actually played his whole career with the Phillies because he believed in honoring the long term contract he signed. And yet, he was never really loved in Philly. There was just something fake about him, but nothing you could actually define.

I guess there is some undefinable quality that can sometimes make us like one character and not another.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, One of the things you run into as a lawyer is that the people who are fakers are almost always better witnesses than people who are really hurt. The reason is that the fakers tend to learn how to manipulate people into feeling sorry for them, whereas people who are genuinely hurt tend to simply be honest. It's very frustrating to see a jury react to the image rather than the reality, but it's a fact of human life.

You also learn very quickly that stoicism never pays, juries want to see weepy no matter how long ago the injury was, and juries do just you on your looks. So someone covered in tattoos and dressed down is much more trouble at trial that someone with a new haircut and a suit.

I suspect the process is similar to why we like film/book characters: I suspect jurors are probably projecting themselves into the situation and trying to judge "how would I be acting if this is where me."

Ed said...

I think you're right. This could be really useful information if you were creating characters and you wanted to make sure some are liked and others aren't.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think it would definitely be useful for that. It would probably be very helpful when writing characters to think in terms of "traits" rather than just plot points if you want to make sure that some come across as likable and others not. It's probably also a good antidote for the way Hollywood tries to make characters likable/dislikable by having them do something good or evil at some point to establish the character. In other words, rather than having the bad guy kick a puppy, just give him more annoying traits.

BevfromNYC said...

It's very useful for creating likeable politicians and demonizing them too.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Are you talking about creating one or just selling the image? In either event, you're right.

In fact, that only raises the question of how careful we should be in accepting the image these people portray. For example, I've seen no evidence that Obama is smart.... but all the Democrats and everyone in the media not only calls him smart, they call him "brilliant." That's clearly them trying to craft an image.

Mike Kriskey said...

This theory doesn't work for comedy, though.

I like George Costanza, Basil Fawlty, and Ralph Kramden, but I can't think of a single trait any of them have that I would want to emulate.

BevfromNYC said...

I think politicians guard their image and do create a persona that can appear likeable. Obama is the perfect example of a manufactured image. Look what we are getting now. He is appearing in rolled up shirtsleeves at backyard barbecues to give the image that he is connecting with the Everyman.

However, we have seen no verifiable proof through any means - transcripts, motions, flyers, letters, emails or tweets to prove that he is who he says he is or has actually put pen to paper himself. (We know he can read because he uses that teleprompter) And I am not a birther, but we do not even have a verifiable birth certificate. We only know from what we are told, the images that are produced daily, and what was in two books that may or may not have been written by him.

Contrast that with the "Tea Party" candidates who by all accounts are real people and not images. They say and do things that are not politically guarded. Because of that, they can appear to be crazy. And they are being attacked for their lack of guarded-ness. Every foible is jumped on to drown out their message.

It makes for great theatre.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, Excellent point! I hadn't thought about comedy, but those characters do seem different. In fact, I would say off the top of my head that comedy characters are best liked when they are harmless and inept.

I'm going to have to think about this, I wonder why comedy would be different? Any ideas?

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I agree entirely about Obama. I don't really care where he was born as that issue is gone -- no on is going to do anything about it. So it's not relevant and we shouldn't waste time on it. But, it is truly fascinating that we don't even know where he was really born! In fact, we know nothing. We don't know anything about his academic performance, we know he lied about how (when) he met Michelle, we don't know what he did for a living before winning a Senate seat, we don't know his religious beliefs (remember that he disavowed listening to Rev. Wright), we don't even know what views he holds.

In fact, we know know nothing about him except the image that David Axelrod crafted for us, and the few unguarded moments that have snuck out to tell us that the image is fake. In fact, the things we've seen in those moments run completely counter to the image that is being sold of a "brilliant, good looking, 'young' guy, with a lot of ideas and dreams who wants to change the world."

If you think about it, this actually sounds a lot like something you would see in the personal ads. All we need to add is "likes long walks at beach and reading from teleprompter" and "looking for single country to rule."

Interesting.

Mike Kriskey said...

It must have to do with their ability to evoke pity.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, I also agree on the tea party observation. What's fascinating (and what actually gives me a lot of faith in the tea party people) is that they seem to be real people who are running for office rather than crafted images being sold to the voters.

I know better than this, but I truly hope that the public is done with the image over substance people, and that we get back to listening to what people believe and what they want to do rather than how well their image is managed by their handlers.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: You're absolutely right. My favorite TV character of all time was Jay Leno's commercial: "Larry the Lawyer." I wonder why.

My favorite testimonial to him was Patty Hearst. "F. Lee Bailey's OK, but the next time I'm on trial for bank robbery and terrorist activity, I'm hiring Larry the Lawyer."

ScottDS said...

In the audio commentary for Used Cars (which is funnier than the film itself and most comedies today), director Robert Zemeckis states an old Hitchcock premise: "Audiences will love a character if he's good at his job."

And I agree with Mike re: George Costanza (or any Seinfeld character).

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, that may be true. It seems that with comedy characters, we want someone we can look down upon, whereas with other stories we generally want someone we can look up to.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I hate to admit it, but I don't know that character. I'm not a fan of the late night guys.

rlaWTX said...

there is commentary on Attribution Theory in this somewhere, but it's been a long day - so I'm not even gonna try...

personally I think there is something to your idea of wanting to be them...
[I'm not sure why this one popped into my head, but...] I'd be Lara Croft in a heartbeat - gorgeous, kick-ass, tough, gets another moment with her dad, and saves the world! (although, I can't come up with another actress that could take Jolie's place - but that could be a comment on today's actresses and not the role)

Mike Kriskey said...

Andrew, I wouldn't put it exactly that way, because looking down on someone is very different from liking him.

How about this? In drama, we like characters whose virtues we admire. In comedy, we like characters whose flaws we share.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I thought that was a great movie -- very funny. I haven't seen the commentary, but it's an interesting thought. . . though I don't know that I agree. George Kostanza was horrible at his job, but people liked him, as are a lot of other very likable characters.

One thing is for sure, this is an interesting issue that requires some thought. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I think there is something to this (though, as Mike pointed out, comedies appear to be different). And I think your mention of Laura Croft is a good one. She's a very compelling character precisely because she is so ultra-competent. She's one of those characters like Superman or James Bond who can basically do anything.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, I don't mean "look down upon" in the disapproval sense, but "look down upon" in the sense of someone we can look at and say, "hey, that guy's a lot worse than I am!" Sympathetic rather than pathetic.

So maybe you're right that it's about seeing someone with our flaws (though massively exaggerated) succeed? Maybe that's the draw to comedy -- that we leave the movie/book feeling like "that guy had all my problems and he pulled it off, so can I!"?

Possibly supporting this, the Greeks used to say that drama is about bringing a great man low, and comedy is about bringing a low man to greatness. It's an interesting thought and it seems to be true.

Mike Kriskey said...

It just struck me that the three characters I mentioned have one thing in common: they all tell ridiculous lies. And a very specific kind of lie---one that makes him seem better than he is. Smarter, more competent, or more accomplished.

So you could argue that comedy is just showing us the other side of drama. Dramatic characters show us who we'd like to be, and comedic characters remind us how far we all are from that ideal.

Mike Kriskey said...

Andrew, we're cross-posting but we seem to be converging upon something.

How come every time I have a good idea, some Greek already thought of it?

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, That's because the Greeks didn't have television, so they had nothing to do but sit around and come up with ideas. . . that and fend off a few Persians. ;-)

I also think we are converging on something here. It sounds like comedy is about poking fun at our faults and giving us the uplifting feeling of overcoming those flaws (often in very ridiculous ways). By comparison, drama is about showing us the kinds of people we strive to be.

Sound good?

Mike Kriskey said...

I'll have to sleep on it, Andrew!

AndrewPrice said...

Alright Mike, I'll be here tomorrow if you have more thoughts! :-)

Mike Kriskey said...

In the Onion today, historians apologize for fabricating Ancient Greece:

"One night someone made a joke about just taking all these ideas, lumping them together, and saying the Greeks had done it all 2,000 years ago," Haddlebury said. "One thing led to another, and before you know it, we're coming up with everything from the golden ratio to the Iliad."

http://www.theonion.com/articles/historians-admit-to-inventing-ancient-greeks,18209/?mobile=false

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, That's hilarious! When the Onion is on, they are really on. One of my favorites they did was an article on whether or not Pittsburgh was prepared for a zombie attack!

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