By Kim Likier, JD., Media Production Associate
Asking, “Do we connect to characters in media like us or like who we want to be?” is like a snake eating its own tail, cyclical and unending. We identify with characters who look or act like us because it is easy to relate to the strife and difficulties those characters might encounter. For external identities, people can pick out the similarities with relative ease—things like race, color, national origin, sex, age, and disability, for example. However, internal identities—ranging from personality traits, invisible disabilities, and gender/sexuality—are not as concrete and are thus harder to pinpoint.
More complicated is the dichotomy of how a person sees themself versus how that person wants other people to see them. For immutable characteristics, the question is somewhat moot, as both perspectives should align. When someone relates to a character in terms of internal characteristics, though, do they relate in terms of how they actually are or who they want to become?
When I was younger, I thought I was a pretty dang friendly kid. I have vivid memories of other kids playing tug-of-war with my arms at the start of recess in a fight over who I would play with. This self-conception stayed with me until high school, when an acting teacher told me that playing a slower, quieter character was too similar to how I normally was. I realized then that my self-conception was actually very different from the way others perceived me. I thought I was a goof, but I was perceived as serious.
I’ve always been an avid reader, and I’ve also always had favorite characters. At twelve years old, I read Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card and immediately fell in love with the main character Bean. Bean is a very small child with a staggering intellect. Calm and reserved, he stays in control of himself despite his being under ten years of age. I wanted to be just like Bean. Eventually, I came across the character Keladry of Mindelan from Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet. Kel had been raised in a culture that frowned on showing emotion, which led to her being a stoic sort of character in much the same vein as Bean. In my later years, I watched Star Trek: Voyager and connected with the ex-Borg character Seven of Nine, with her poise, intelligence, and lack of social graces.
In short, I have always connected with characters who were smart, quiet, and a bit of a social outcast. Yet as a child, I never conceptualized myself with the latter two traits. I thought I was most like Tigger out of all the Winnie the Pooh characters, with his affinity for bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy fun-fun-fun-fun-fun. If anything, I saw Bean, Kel, and Seven as characters very different from myself who had traits I wanted to emulate.
So, which came first? Me liking the characters who were like me? Or me liking the characters who were what I wanted to be (and so became)? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. What I find most important is that these characters, and many more for that matter, reached out to me and helped me develop my conception of myself and the world around me.
This is why we need more stories with diverse protagonists. We need female scientists, black engineers, gay mathematicians, and Muslim inventors. We need literature that reflects the reality of our existence—or better yet, the way we want the world to be. Whether a character helps a child accept a part of themselves or encourages that child to try something new, that representation matters.
Do you have a favorite character? Are they like you or who you want to be?