Identification is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is achieved when a reader feels sorry for the character's plight. But a reader might feel sorry for a loathsome wretch who is about to be hung without identifying with him. Identification occurs when the reader is not only in sympathy with the character's plight, but also supports his or her goals and aspirations and has a strong desire that the character achieve them.
• In Jaws, the reader supports Brody's goal to destroy the shark.
• In Carrie, the reader supports Carrie's longings to go to the prom against her tyrannical mother's wishes.
• In Pride and Prejudice, the reader supports Elizabeth's desire to fall in love and get married.
• In The Trial,, the reader supports K.'s determination to free himself from the clutches of the law.
• In Crime and Punishment, the reader supports Raskolni-kov's need to escape from poverty.
• In The Red Badge of Courage, the reader supports Henry's desire to prove to himself he is no coward.
• In Gone with the Wind, the reader supports Scarlett's craving to get her plantation back after it is destroyed by Yankees.
Fine, you say, but what if you're writing about a loathsome wretch? How do you get the reader to identify then? Easy.
Say you have a character who's in prison. He's treated horribly, beaten by the guards, beaten by the other prisoners, abandoned by his family. Even though he may be guilty as Cain, the reader will feel sorry for him, so you've won the reader's sympathy. But will the reader identify with him?
Say his goal is to bust out of prison. The reader will not necessarily identify with his goal because he's, say, a vicious killer. A reader who wants him to stay in prison will identify with the prosecutors, judges, juries, and guards, who want him kept right where he is. It is possible, though, for the reader to identify with the prisoner's goal if he has a desire to reform and make amends for what he's done. Give your character a goal that is noble, and the reader will take his side, no matter how much of a degenerate slime he has proven himself to be in the past.
Mario Puzo had a problem when he wrote The Godfather. His protagonist, Don Corleone, made a living by loan-sharking, running protection rackets, and corrupting labor unions. Hardly someone you'd want to invite over for an evening of pinochle. To stay in business, Don Corleone bribed politicians, bought newsmen, bullied Italian shopkeepers into selling only Genco Pura olive oil, and made offers impossible to refuse. Let's face it, Don Corleone was a degenerate slime of the first rank. Not a character a reader would be likely to sympathize and identify with. Yet Puzo wanted readers to sympathize and identify with Don Corleone and he was able to get them to do it. Millions of people who read the book and millions more who saw the film did sympathize and identify with Don Cor-leone. How did Mario Puzo work this miracle? He did it with a stroke of genius, creating the magic of sympathy for a character who had suffered an injustice and linking Don Corleone with a noble goal.
Mario Puzo did not begin his story with Don Corleone fitting out some poor slob with a pair of cement shoes, which would have caused the reader to despise him. Instead, he begins with a hardworking undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, standing in an American courtroom as he "waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her." But the judge lets the boys get off with a suspended sentence. As Puzo's narrator tells us:
All his years in America, Amerigo Bonasera had trusted in law and order. And he had prospered thereby. Now, though his brain smoked with hatred, though wild visions of buying a gun and killing the two young men jangled the very bones of his skull, Bonasera turned to his still uncomprehending wife and explained to her, "They have made fools of us." He paused and then made his decision, no longer fearing the cost. "For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone."
Obviously, the reader is in sympathy with Mr. Bonasera, who wants only justice for his daughter. And since Mr. Bonasera must go to Don Corleone to get justice, our sympathy is transferred to Don Corleone, the man who brings justice. Puzo forges a positive emotional bond between the reader and Don Corleone through sympathy, by creating a situation where the reader identifies with Don Corleone's goal of obtaining justice for poor Mr. Bonasera and his unfortunate daughter.
Next, Puzo reinforces the reader's identification with Don Corleone when he has "the Turk" approach him to deal dope and the Don—as a matter of high principle—refuses; the reader identifies with Don Corleone even more. By giving the Don a code of personal honor, Puzo helps the reader to dismiss his or her revulsion for crime bosses. Instead of loathing Don Corleone, the reader is fully in sympathy with him, identifying with him and championing his cause.
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