How Characters Help Us Become Our Own Protagonists
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How Characters Help Us Become Our Own Protagonists

The characters we love influence us more than we know.

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How Characters Help Us Become Our Own Protagonists
Oxford Dictionaries Blog

On Facebook recently, I noticed a chain post that asks the participants to name the film, television or book characters that most reflect their personality.

It got me wondering how much our own character, the avatar we guide through this game called life is affected and altered by the characters we admire on the screen and page.

These characters can't be described as ontologically real people that can be engaged in passionate conversation on the current presidential race, nor can they tenderly grasp your hand as you stroll down the gas-lit streets of foggy Londontown. That is what makes it so vastly interesting that we are still massively influenced and inspired by them, whether or not we realize it, on a regular basis. Why do we allow fictional beings the right to rule our hearts and minds with so little effort?

Well, it all starts with our perspective of what's real and what isn't.

Psychologically, we are programmed to become attached to characters in our favorite form of fiction (try saying that ten times fast!) through our brain's vast capability for reading emotion and stress through a character or person's facial expressions and tone of voice.

Psychologist Tamar Gendler proposes there is a form of pseudo-belief called "alief"--a refreshing word for what happens in our brain when we suspend disbelief just enough to believe that Robert Downey, Jr. is maybe (just maybe) not playing himself all the time, but is actually transforming into similar, but different characters. It takes a certain desire on our part to immerse ourselves into another time and place, and "alief" is what helps us fulfill that desire.

Empathy and projection are two of the greater culprits in fastening our attention and imagination onto characters of all types. The latter encompasses It's part of the reason there is such an enormous interest and enjoyment of "cosplay," the act of dressing up as a beloved character for an event for similarly minded people.

But, what psychologists have been discovering, as Abby Norman covers so well in her article on the subject, is that more than anything, we don't want to be these characters that inspire us, we simply want to be their friends.

It makes sense if you think about it. Like any realistic, quality friendship, you've been with your characters through thick and thin, seen more of their emotional range than you might of most acquaintances and rooted for them against all odds.

When I am in emotional crises or otherwise unsure of where to turn my rudder, I find myself often looking to stories I love and respect for advice. I don't mean that I go find a bottle of rum like Captain Jack, or grab a stick and start pointing it at things, shouting in Latin phrases. It's quite simply more just for comfort and reference; a feeling that echoes in my heart and mind with the resonance of familiarity.

Movies, television and literature have the power of taking us through the 'wardrobe', so to speak, to places we've never been and on adventures with strangers that become our allies. I've always harbored a special love for the genres of fantasy and science fiction, respectively, because they take everyday tasks and place them in extraordinary circumstances.

By following along the protagonist's journey, the reader or watcher is able to distance themselves just enough to learn without risk of injury (unless it is an injury of the heart at the death of a beloved character). Stories like the "Chronicles of Narnia" and "Harry Potter" begin in the reality that we are familiar with, then add the heightened reality of the worlds they discover.

Learning life lessons alongside them and in diverse and dangerous situations makes applying that knowledge to our everyday that much easier. Similarly, if you're having a rough day, it is a comfort to know that you can give in to escapism and go hang out with some friends that won't judge you for a little while.

Reading and watching things that inspire and teach us is so much more powerful than many people believe. So choose your material carefully because the characters you meet, just might stay with you for a lifetime.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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