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As I was reading different stories, I came to wonder about what is better for the reader to identify with the character.

Indeed, it is often unclear whether the MC (main character) is like the reader or better than him because he is often both.

Sometimes, the MC will easily find the answer to a complex problem (showing more cleverness than most readers), but sometimes he will react as 'stupidly' as most readers, or even worse (take the idiocy of most Shōnen manga MC for example).

Another example is the 'ordinary world' of the story. It is common to see a weak MC, with all in all quite a pathetic life, or on the contrary for the MC to be a prince or something like that.

I personally prefer smart MCs, but I guess it depends on the reader.

So, what is better : a MC similar to us, or better than us in order for us to identify ourselves with this character ?

  • Wow, so many good answers... :o – user18743 Apr 27 '16 at 12:09
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I'm not sure where we got the notion that readers have to identify with the main character. We are one of the most narcissistic societies of recent memory but we are still interested in people other than ourselves. We do still read about characters who are interesting even though (or even because) they are not like us.

I think there are four kinds of appeal a character may have for the reader: fantasy, aspirational, ideological, and representative.

The fantasy character is the one we wish other people were like: the Bond girl, the romantic lover of a romance novel. They don't represent reality; they feed our appetites. We don't want to identify with them, we want to possess them.

The aspirational character is the person we would like to be ourselves. James Bond, or the heroine of a romance novel. We identify with them in the sense that we want to think we could be like them.

The ideological character represents (at least figuratively) something we would like to be true about human beings, even if it is not. This can be negative as well as positive. Many portrayals of businessmen in fiction are ideological hatchet jobs. They appeal because they confirm our prejudices.

The representational character represents a genuine truth about the human condition. They appeal to us on the basis of recognition or sympathy. If we are narcissists, we are interested only in the representation of ourselves. If we are not we are interested in the representation of others. However, my guess would be that most narcissists are more attracted to aspirational or ideological characters than to truly representational ones. They prefer a magic mirror to a real one.

Which of these is better is an ideological and commercial question as much as an artistic one. Indeed, which of these is your prime consideration is likely to guide your answer. Artistically, representative characters should presumably appeal. Ideologically, ideologically compatible characters are presumably to be preferred. Commercially, fantasy and aspirational characters are probably the most reliable sellers, along with those that support the popular ideology of the day.

As a writer, I aspire to create representative characters. But I am aware that fantasy, aspirational, and ideological characters are likely to creep into my work based on my own fantasies, aspirations, and ideologies. I'm also aware that this is probably not the most commercially viable choice to make.

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I think you are oversimplifying a complex issue. And it is complex because humans are complex beings.

You can't compare two human beings in a general way, and therefore you can't make the claim that a MC is similar/better/worse than the intended reader - another assumption: is the intended reader a single person?

At best, what you can do is present a single, very narrow characteristic of the MC, with the assumption that s/he will be better/worse than a vast majority of intended readers. For instance, you may have a MC who is exceptionally, consistently calm when being yelled at. In some stories it might work, in most probably won't (I think non-realistic characters make for poor identification).

It really depends a lot on the story you're writing, but generally speaking readers identify with people who are similar to them.

  • Well, a character could be "better" than the reader in every imaginable way: smarter, stronger, kinder, better-looking, etc etc. But yes, I see your point. Lots of stories have a hero who is very smart, but socially awkward, etc, there are all sorts of variations. – Jay May 3 '16 at 19:27
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What do readers want?

  1. The protagonists of the most popular and bestselling books all start out as similar to their readers. They are normal people, leading normal lives, and have problems that the readers can identify with.

    Make your characters similar to your readers.

  2. The protagonists of the most popular and bestselling books all achieve their dreams. They find friends (MG) or love (YA).

    Let your character achieve your readers' goals.

  3. The protagonists of the most popular and bestselling books all achieve something grand and useful. They solve a mystery (MG) or save the world (YA).

    Show how normal people will do heroic deeds if the circumstances require it.

    That is, the protagonists are not better than their readers, rather they discover how awseome they are, if presented with the right opportunity.

  4. The most popular and bestselling MG fiction ends after the goal has been achieved. The protagonist has solved the mystery and made new friends.

    Some of the most popular and bestselling YA fiction lets the protagonist achieve a mixed and painful victory. Katniss wins the Hunger Games and overthrows the government, but her love life, after some momentary happiness, turns into a desaster. Same in the Maze Runner.

    In certain genres of YA, let your character achieve great things in the world but fail spectacularly in their private lives. That is, take away what you gave them in number 2 above, thus making them normal and like your readers again.

Please note: You cannot write for everyone. So identify your target audience and get to know who they are, what problems they have in everyday life, and what they dream of.

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Part of the reason we read is to learn. Fiction places us in scenarios we might never encounter in real life, but we can still learn life lessons from them.

In order to best learn from a character we need to a) perceive ways in which we are like that character, b) sometimes see the character making mistakes that we can thus learn to avoid, c) sometimes see the character making good decisions that we can thus learn to emulate.

So the answer to your question is all three. A character that is always better or always worse than us is not relatable --one that sometimes does right and sometimes does wrong is truer to life.

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Do not make him perfect, however, I think readers need someone to look up to.

If you take Bridget Jones - she is more real and amazing than any of the perfect goddesses of most paperback novels. It's because she has flaws, we women recognize in ourselves. Most important of all is that your character should be in trouble the entire time - and being imperfect is good trouble. People look up to her because she is genuine, romantic and gradually developing her self-esteem.

So my answer is - both: yes, your character shouldn't have it all, but yes - your character should be unique.

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Whether your main character (MC) is similar to or better than a particular reader depends largely on your intent.

If your intent is to have the reader identify with the MC, then you should strive for similar to. However, if you want to motivate the reader, creating a MC that is better than the reader is likely preferable.

In addition, different genres of fiction will answer the question differently (but are still based on intent). For example, in horror, it's typical for the MC to be similar to a reader in order to provoke emotional resonance and heighten the tension.

I also feel the need to tell you that I think you're oversimplifying the issue on several fronts.

  1. Not all readers are going to identify or be motivated by the same things. Your readers aren't homogeneous (at least I hope they aren't), and you shouldn't treat them as such.

  2. Similar to and better than aren't the only options. There's also the possibility that they're worse than a particular reader.

  3. Related to #1, but slightly different, is that your MC should be more than one-dimensional. You would do well to craft interesting characters with multiple facets to their personalities. If that's the case, what makes the MC similar to one reader will make them better than another reader, and vice versa.

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I agree with mbakeranelecta, but what I want to say is too long for a comment so let me write it as it's own answer.

Personally, I've never understood the concept of "a hero that the reader can identify with". I guess there are readers out there who want such stories. I never did. I remember when I was a kid, there was a TV show that was advertised all the time as being "about kids like you". And every time I heard that advertisement, I thought to myself, "I don't want to watch TV shows about kids like me. What, a show about somebody going to school and doing homework and delivering newspapers? I want to watch TV shows about spies and astronauts and adventurers, people doing things that are exciting."

Likewise, I often hear critics say, "This was a great story because it's so realistic. It's about ordinary people leading ordinary lives." Well I don't want to read a story about someone going to work in an office and mowing the lawn and paying bills.

I like to read stories about people dramatically different from me. Maybe someone whose life is exciting, like space travelers visiting strange planets or an archaeologist fighting Nazis. Or maybe someone who simply has a life much different from mine, like someone who lives in a faraway time and/or place.

To me, what makes a story interesting is often precisely that the hero is different from me.

I've read "inspirational" stories where the point very clearly is that the hero is a better person than the reader, and that the reader should try to imitate him. I generally find such stories boring. I'm sure there are some that do it well, but I think it's hard to pull off.

I rarely find myself saying about the hero of a book or movie, either, "Yes! That person is just like me!", or "Yes! I'm going to work to make myself more like him!" I'm much more likely to say, "Wow, what an interesting character!" Which may be good or bad.

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