Audience Identification with Characters Empathy Mirror Neurons Mirror Neurons - Clip 1 Projection of Anima Someone Else's Shoes Self into Story 1 Self into Story 2 Wish Fulfillment Wish Fulfillment Clip 1 Wish Fulfillment Clip 2 Wish Fulfillment Clip 3 Inner Transformation Clip Cultural Transformation Clip

Audience Identification with Characters


The dramatic purpose of the Hero is to give the audience a window into the story. Each person hearing a tale or watching a play or movie is invited, in the early stages of the story, to identify with the Hero, to merge with him and see the world of the story through his eyes. Storytellers do this by giving their Heroes a combination of qualities, a mix of universal and unique characteristics” (Vogler 30)

Heroes have qualities that we all can identify with and recognize in ourselves. They are propelled by universal drives that we can all understand: the desire to be loved and understood, to succeed, survive, be free, get revenge, right wrongs, or seek self-expression” (Vogler 30)

Stories invite us to invest part of our personal identity in the Hero for the duration of the experience. In a sense we become the Hero for a while. We project ourselves into the Hero's psyche, and see the world through her eyes. Heroes need some admirable qualities, so that we want to be like them. We want to experience the self-confidence of Katharine Hepburn, the elegance of Fred Astaire, the wit of Cary Grant, the sexiness of Marilyn Monroe” (Vogler 30).

Heroes should have universal qualities, emotions, and motivations that everyone has experienced at one time or another: revenge, anger, lust, competition, territoriality, patriotism, idealism, cynicism, or despair. But Heroes must also be unique human beings, rather than stereotypical creatures or tin gods without flaws or unpredictability. Like any effective work of art they need both universality and originality. Nobody wants to see a movie or read a story about abstract qualities in  uman form. We want stories about real people. A real character, like a real person, is not just a single trait but a unique combination of many qualities and drives, some of them conflicting. And the more conflicting, the better. A character torn by warring allegiances to love and duty is inherently interesting to an audience. A character who has a unique combination of contradictory impulses, such as trust and suspicion or hope and despair, seems more realistic and human than one who displays only one character trait” (Vogler 31).

A well-rounded Hero can be determined, uncertain, charming, forgetful, impatient, and strong in body but weak at heart, all at the same time. It's the particular combination of qualities that gives an audience the sense that the Hero is one of a kind, a real person rather than a type” (Vogler 31). 


“The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between audience and character” (364 McKee) “If the writer fails to fuse a bond between filmgoer and protagonist, we sit outside feeling nothing. Involvement has nothing to do with evoking altruism or compassion. We empathize for very personal, if not egocentric, reasons” (141 McKee).
“When we identify with a protagonist and his desires in life, we are in fact rooting for our own desires in life. Through empathy, the vicarious linking of ourselves to a fictional human being, we test and stretch our humanity. The gift of story is the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being” (142 McKee). As Tolkien writes, Characters in stories “put on the pride and beauty that we would fain wear ourselves. At least part of the magic that they wield for the good or evil of man is the power to play on the desires of his body and his heart” (8 Tolkien). What he means is that characters represent desires in our hearts that we may never explore in real life, on our own. But through stories, through these characters, we vicariously live out our dreams.
Whether it’s because the audience identifies with shared struggles or potential excellence, such identification is experienced as empathy. “Empathetic means ‘like me.’ Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity. Character and audience are not alike in every fashion, of course; they may share only a single quality. But there's something about the character that strikes a chord. In that moment of recognition, the audience suddenly and instinctively wants the protagonist to achieve whatever it is that he desires” (141 McKee).
“The unconscious logic of the audience runs like this: "This character is like me. Therefore, I want him to have whatever it is he wants, because if I were he in those circumstances, I'd want the same thing for myself." Hollywood has many synonymic expressions for this connection: "somebody to get behind," "someone to root for." All describe the empathetic connection that the audience strikes between itself and the protagonist. An audience may, if so moved, empathize with every character in your film, but it must empathize with your protagonist. If not, the audience/story bond is broken” (141 McKee).
Empathy with a protagonist is not as elusive as it may seem. “When you think about it, underneath this skin of ours we're really the same, you and I; certain things unite us. We share the same needs, the same wants, the same fears and insecurities; we want to be loved, have people like us, be successful, happy, and healthy” (63 Field). As long as a protagonist activates something in the audience we all share beneath our skin, projection, empathy, will be activated.
And it’s not just pains, insecurities and dreams we share. What Campbell wants to add is that we also share the extraordinary qualities of great mythic heroes. He writes, “THE MIGHTY HERO of extraordinary powers-able to lift Mount Govardhan on a finger, and to fill himself with the terrible glory of the universe-is each of us: not the physical self visible in the mirror, but the king within” (Campbell 315). “The hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life” (Campbell 30-31). “The divine being is a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all” (Campbell 275). This is to say, when a hero represents the heroism within all of us, empathy and projection will be called forth.
“Two principles control the emotional involvement of an audience. First, empathy: identification with the protagonist that draws us into the story, vicariously rooting for our own desires in life. Second, authenticity: We must believe, or as Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested, we must willingly suspend our disbelief. Once involved, the writer must keep us involved to FADE OUT. To do so, he must convince us that the world of his story is authentic. We know that storytelling is a ritual surrounding a metaphor for life. To enjoy this ceremony in the dark we react to stories as i they're real. We suspend our cynicism and believe in the tale as long as we find it authentic. The moment it lacks credibility, empathy dissolves and we feel nothing” (186 McKee). “A character must be credible: young enough or old enough, strong or weak, worldly or naïve, educated or ignorant, generous or selfish, witty or dull, in the right proportions. Each must bring to the story the combination of qualities that allows an audience to believe that the character could and would do what he does” (105-106 McKee).

Mirror Neurons

Mimesis and mirror neurons – engaging mirror neurons while miming deeper patterns, acting as a conduit for us to engage deeper patterns through the performer than we would otherwise be able to engage Dancers are incredible mimetic artists… On the surface, dancers have to mime the rhythm of the music – a simple pattern… On a deeper level, great dancers find a way to mimetically convey, poetically, with their bodies, patterns that communicate the story and its emotions. This is all enabled through the dancer’s ability to shape his or her being in a way that conveys the patterns of something else…

Mirror Neurons - Clip 1

Projection of Anima

Someone Else's Shoes

Self into Story 1

Self into Story 2

Wish Fulfillment

Wish Fulfillment Clip 1

Wish Fulfillment Clip 2

Wish Fulfillment Clip 3

Inner Transformation Clip

Cultural Transformation Clip