Character Affinity

By | Thursday, December 08, 2011 Leave a Comment
What makes readers connect with a comic? Well, it's obviously different for every individual and there are a number of factors involved, but one of the biggies is character affinity. How much the reader personally identifies with the main character(s).

When I was a kid, Batman was my favorite character. He was confident and powerful (in a human capacity -- none of this lifting-cars-over-your-head garbage), he was smart and he didn't have any pesky girls bothering him. (This was obviously at a time when I still thought girls were "icky.") I wasn't any of those things myself, but they were all traits I aspired to at some level. I wasn't reading much, if anything, in terms of characterization so even the flat presentation of him in those Filmation cartoons was acceptable. While I like other superheroes, Batman (and, to a lesser extent, Green Arrow) stood out because he was a regular guy. No power ring, no super speed, no talking to fish... just a dude and whatever he had tucked in his belt. I related to that self-reliance and ingenuity and not-feeling-inferior-next-to-the-most-powerful-heroes-on-the-planet thing. That's what I wanted to be.

When I started getting old enough to look for more three-dimensional characters, I found the Fantastic Four. They were a little more rounded than Batman -- at least the Batman I was exposed to at the time. Plus, they weren't fighting crime (which I had no real interest in) so much as exploring the universe. Or, sometimes, other universes! I saw bits of myself particularly in Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch -- I aspired to be like Reed, but I was probably closer to Johnny in terms of temperament and intelligence. Also, the camaraderie the team displayed was something I wanted for myself. I kept seeing people making allusions in the comic press to the Fantastic Four as a family, but I was thought that seemed a bit of a stretch. (Ben and Johnny as children to Reed and Sue as parents? Really?) No, they were four people who CHOSE to be with one another because they liked each other. Four people who were CLOSER than family because they WANTED to be with one another; there was no "well, you're related so you have to make nice to him during Christmas dinner, even if you think he's an ass" or anything along those lines. To have a group of friends as close as the Fantastic Four clearly were, that was something special.

But the aspirational angle is only a part of it. Direct identification is a pretty heavy influencer as well. Think about why Spider-Man was became so popular so quickly... Peter Parker was a dorky teenager who was riddled with self-doubt, and wasn't sure where he'd get enough money to buy Aunt May's medicine. A lot of people saw themselves in very much that role. Awkward and broke. They (inwardly) lacked confidence like Peter and struck out with girls like Peter and weren't sure if they had enough money to buy a slice of pizza like Peter. "Yeah! That's exactly what I'm going through! I'm not the only one! Somebody else gets it!" Plus, with Spider-Man, they still get the aspirational side of being a powerful hero that no one really knows about.

But there's also the more realistic affinity as well. The slice of life comics wherein a creator throws him/herself on the page and the reader not only says, "Yeah! That's exactly what I'm going through!" but also "And this isn't fiction! This creator REALLY is experiencing the same things I am!"

When I got divorced, it was (not surprisingly) very difficult emotionally for me. It was made more difficult because, despite the 50% divorce rate, I personally knew almost no one who had gotten a divorce. At least no one who ever admitted it to me. So when I discovered that cartoonist Frank Page was going through the same situation at the same time I was, AND putting it all in his comic strip Bob the Squirrel... well, it's hard to imagine me not feeling a sense of kinship with the man. Or at least his cartoon avatar. The strip is funny, and I'd still be reading today based on that alone, but feeling like I fought the same battles alongside Frank, each strip resounds with me a little more deeply.

Where I'm going with this is: if you really want to reach your audience in any sort of meaningful way, your characters need some degree of authenticity. You're not going to replicate each and every experience they've had, and you're not going to hit each and every member of your audience. But the more you give your readers an opportunity to feel an affinity to your characters -- because I'm not just talking about your lead protagonist here, but ALL of your characters -- the more likely they'll respond emotionally. And the more likely they are to respond emotionally, the more likely they'll stick around and, in a best case scenario, even advocate your strip. Like I just did for Bob.
Newer Post Older Post Home