Forty years ago, I was introduced to a nerdy game called D&D, and quickly found myself becoming a “Dungeon Master,” the person who created adventures and led people on imaginary quests. I even began designing my own games.
I quickly learned something about people. When I introduced someone to D&D, people wanted to play themselves . . . with some enhancements.
For example, I had a couple of friends who were football players—big old linemen. Guess what they wanted to be in D&D? They wanted to be big old barbarians, swinging their axes and squashing anything in their sights.
The cute girl in the corner? She’s always chose to be an elf—the hottie in the group with irresistible charisma.
The shy little mousy guy or girl would want to be a thief, blending into shadows. The intellectual always wanted to be a wizard, and so on.
This confused me at first. When I was young, it seemed to me that an alter ego would be someone the opposite from you, the Dr. Jekyll to your Mister Hyde. I suspected that people would want powers they didn’t have.
But I found that most game players wanted more of what already made them successful.
Even the kinds of games that people play goes back to personality. If a person has great dexterity and timing, they’ll like playing “manipulatives” like Mario Brothers. If a person is good at calculating odds, they might head to the poker table, and so on.
In fact, the idea that “like attracts like” can be seen in audiences in every medium.
In studying audiences for videogames like World of Warcraft, game designers often shy away from creating new races. Sure, I could create a Ratman, and make it interesting. I could give him super-powers such as an “infectious” bite, make him resistant to blows, and give him the power to “scurry from danger” in a heartbeat, but but very few would choose to play that character. (Well, maybe a little ratlike person would.) But in playing online role-playing games, 70% of all people prefer to play “humans,” regardless of how exciting the nonhuman characters are.
It may be that most people can’t stretch their imaginations enough to see the advantages of playing a nonhuman character, but I suspect that there is something more: they can’t bring themselves to care about a creature so different from themselves. They’re not sympatico.
This 70% rule extends to other audiences, too.
For example, a survey a few years ago of male readers found that 32% of men did not like to read books by or about women. They felt that it was too hard to relate to them. A survey of women found that 18% of women won’t read books by or about men. So they scored a little better.
In fact, some doctors suggest that since women have higher levels of the hormone oxytocin, which promotes compassion, that it explains why they can cross over and bond with a different gender easily. If you do the math, 14% more women can cross the gender barrier than men. Coincidentally, in a recent article, I found that women have 14% oxytocin than men—which helps the average woman be more compassionate.
All of which leads to a question about creating characters: what kind of character does the audience identify with best?
People don’t readily accept nonhumans as alter egos. Some people can’t identify with people of other genders. Some find race or age or political persuasion to be a barrier.
It seems to me that the highest art in building characters is learning how to create characters that everyone can bond with.
Interestingly enough, if you look at characters who capture the imagination of wide audiences, they’re often normal people. Frodo Baggins, Katniss Everdeen, and Forrest Gump are all just regular folks.
I call them “Everymans.” While critics like to heap praise on authors who create exotic characters, I’m more interested in trying to capture the soul of the average person.
None of the heroes listed above can shoot rockets from their eyes. They come from mundane backgrounds. They’re just people like us, but perhaps with a bit more compassion, a bit more determination, and a bit more resilience. That’s what made them attractive to vast audiences.
They’re our alter egos, our other selves, the people we bond with most easily and deeply, and learning how to write them well is an art form in itself, because it forces you as a writer to try to come to grips with the fears, hopes, and aspirations that we all share.