On the Need to Identify with Fictional Characters

My two favorite movies from 2007 are No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. What they have in common among other things, and it is this commonality that makes me attracted to both of them, is their protagonists: Daniel Plainview in TWBB, and Anton Chigurh in NCFOM.

In my discussions with other people about these two movies, one complaint has emerged on a fairly consistent basis, namely, that neither movie really “explains” these characters, thereby making them almost impossible to identify with. A related complaint is that because these characters are impossible to identify with and are not historicized, they do not “grow.”

I fail to see the merits of these criticisms, because the need to “identify” with a character through some kind of psychological historicization of the character seems to me a reflection of the prejudice, unsophisticated in my opinion, to feel at one with the characters. I see no reason why identifiability should be an artistic requirement.

First, these two movies are not naturalistic or realistic; they are rather mythical. They both take place in a geographical settings that are rich with allegory and symbolism, and they both feature stories that have overt Bibilical/religious undertones. Therefore, to expect these movies to be populated by realistic, everyday people is futile at best. Rather, these movies are populated by larger-than-life, mythical, otherworldly characters.

Second, why the demand to identify with these characters? What is the point of identifying with an extreme misanthrope or an utterly pathological psycho-killer? Some characters are meant to provoke and shock, not to identify with. If they are to provoke and shock at all, they must in some sense remain mysterious to the viewers.

Third, why the need to, so to speak, “psychologize” these characters, in other words, to explain and rationalize the process by which they become who they are. There are many pitfalls in taking such a psychological approach. First, it is likely that any psychological explanation that is offered will be too reductive. After all, do we need another “he was abused as a child by his father” type of explanation? These kind of psychological explanations are too simplistic or causally trivial. Second, the need to psychologize and rationalize evil reflects a bias to moralize everything. Why is it not acceptable to accept that sometimes evil people just exist, that they are just evil.

Fourth, why do these characters need to “grow”? What are they supposed to be growing into? Are they supposed to undergo some kind of moral transformation that makes them bearable? Again, this is just a bias to moralize fictional characters. If they are presented as fully formed in the beginning, what exactly is wrong with that? But of course, these characters are not presented explicitly in the beginning. The viewers begin to understand more of these characters as the films progress, but that is not the same thing as these characters’ growing, because the characters themselves are already fully-formed–it is only the audience that needs to peel back the layers so to speak. But even then, both movies never fully reveal these characters, which is good, because the mysterious and inexplicable nature of these characters contributes to the overall effect.

And these arguments that I have made go for pretty much all works of art. Why is it that people feel the need to identify with characters? It matters not to me whether a character is “likable,” because that is not the point: the point is to create an artistic effect. I just see the need to identify as reflecting a kind of self-absorption, the inability or willful denial to confront reality, which is to say, the denial that in real life, as is in art, there are people whom we can never know or understand, and that sometimes they commit acts of evil which cannot simply be rationalized away.

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