Do We Need to Identify With a Protagonist to Enjoy a Novel?

Mar 21, 2013 | Updated May 21, 2013

Do we need to be able to identify with the protagonist of a fictional text in order to enjoy it? This is a question I frequently grapple with when I teach 18th and 19th century novels to undergraduates. The complaint that "I just couldn't identify with the hero/heroine" is probably heard most frequently at book club meetings, but it enters the college classroom fairly often too. What, if anything, can be said in response?

The first thing I often explain to students is that our seemingly spontaneous desire to identify with fictional protagonists is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to the 18th century, most authors in the Western tradition didn't worry too much about whether their characters' motivations seemed realistic to readers; their conceptions of character were largely static or symbolic, and their protagonists were exemplary or humorous as a result. The very idea of a "round" character, with a recognizably "deep" psychology, was primarily an early-19th century invention. Even the adjectives we use to describe such characters are metaphorical: they refer to a spatial dimension that is of course entirely imaginary, since fictional characters literally exist only on the page (or, these days, the screen). The assumption that characters, especially protagonists or main characters, are there to be identified with, is thus arguably misguided when reading pre- or early-modern works of British poetry and prose like The Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, or even Paradise Lost. (Drama is a rather different case; Aristotle's idea of catharsis, the emotional outlet provided by witnessing the fall of a tragic hero, has long encouraged dramatists from Sophocles to Shakespeare to keep their heroes and villains psychologically relatable.)

The beginnings of the modern book market in the early 18th century helped convince authors to begin creating more identifiable protagonists -- ones that readers would pay to read about. To simplify greatly, consider two well-known novels that more or less bookend what literary historians sometimes call "the long 18th century." The complete title of the text Daniel Defoe published in 1719 is hardly used today -- it would never sell if it were -- but is worth considering in full:

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates.

So much for suspense, right? And that's the point: Defoe's "novel" -- I put the term in quotation marks because it wouldn't be commonly used to describe lengthy, realistic fiction until later in the century -- depends for its interest more on its vivid, first-person depictions of Crusoe's feelings, moods, hopes, and anxieties than on its rather thin plot.

By the turn of the 19th century, didactic texts like sermons, essays, and of course the Bible were still popular. But the reading public had shown an appetite for novels -- especially ones with complex, even contradictory protagonists -- that would only continue to grow. Mary Shelley's debut novel of 1818, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, showcases the genre's newfound ability to immerse readers in the complicated psychologies of its main characters. Is Victor Frankenstein a selfish, immature madman or a brave, misunderstood genius for fabricating his Creature from dead parts, despite recognizing all along that "I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, [and] tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?" Spurred on by Shelley's vigorous prose, readers and critics have been debating Victor's motivations and ethics (or lack of them) ever since.

And so we return to the question of whether fictional protagonists need to be relatable in order for readers to enjoy ourselves. If relatable merely means likable, then I think the answer is no: many classic fictional heroes and heroines, including Catherine Earnshaw in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, are not particularly likable. But if we expand our definition of "relatable" to mean psychologically plausible, then I think the answer is yes. We may not always like, or even approve of, fictional protagonists like selfish Catherine and obsessive Raskolnikov. But I think we have much to gain from learning to recognize reflections of ourselves in them, even -- or perhaps especially -- when we want to deny any resemblances. There are, of course, many other good reasons to read literature: for entertainment, for instruction, for inspiration. But from the 18th century onward, novels have shown themselves to be remarkably effective, durable technologies for encouraging us to extend our understanding to others, no matter how different or unlikable they might initially appear. And if that isn't a good reason to pick up a good book, then I don't know what is.