Reading about Ourselves

Ask one of your friends about a good book they have read recently and most will talk about how they are either like one of the characters in some way or have found themselves in a similar situation. “I felt a special connection,” one will say, while another might comment, “I really understood how she felt.  I could relate,” or even, “It’s almost like he was writing about me.”

When I hear these phrases I have the urge to respond, “but you aren’t a teenage girl who moved across the country and fell in love with a protective, vegetarian vampire.  You aren’t a psychopathic murderer who also happens to be successful in investment banking.  And you aren’t Tina Fey!”  It’s natural for us to think that we are all in some way special and different, that we see the world for the way it really is.  The mere existence of the film, The Truman Show, tells me that at least someone else has wondered if there are actually little cameras watching our every move, people who are interested in the common day things that we do and say and think.  But books and movies seem to be the only places where we would be able to escape ourselves, and still, most of the time we choose not to.

For anyone who has ever cried while they read a book (it’s ok to admit, don’t worry) were you really dabbing at your eyes for a fictional character or for the actual Anne Frank?  At least in my experience, if I were to be truthful about it, I’m crying for me.  I’m crying because I can imagine myself being trapped, my brother being murdered, my house burning down.  I don’t love the characters.  What I love is how they make me feel and how much I would want to be them.  Sometimes it seems like the stories that can trick us into thinking they know how we feel and what we are afraid of are the ones we claim to be the “moving” and “powerful”.

But this self-absorption and urge to understand the self can also become possessive.  How many times have you read a book or a series that you think is marvelous but which becomes insubstantial once it becomes a best seller and everyone loves the characters?  It’s because you realize that these other readers don’t love you, but pieces of someone else.  The claim on the characters is democratic, free, and anyone can say they relate.

My roommate has recently fallen in love with the television show New Girl, where she thinks the character Jess, played by Zooey Deschanel, is her twin.  I have to admit, they both like to sing about what they are doing as they are doing it, and are full of unwarranted optimism, but then ultimately the character was written to appeal to all types of people who just want permission to be themselves.  When another friend of hers said, “Zooey’s character is me!” my roommate was offended.

“She can’t be Jess, I’m Jess!”

Although these types of characters can easily become the most popular, should we allow our naturally narcissistic tendencies to rule what makes a strong character?

-Abigail Hess

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