Do you read to watch the characters or to be the characters?
Insert self to right. (Admittedly that's quite tempting...)
It’s often said of romance that the reader wants to put herself in the heroine’s place and imagine it’s her that the hero is in love with. This of course makes two assumptions, one that the reader is a woman and two, that there’s a hero and a heroine and nobody else. Neither of which are necessarily true, though women are still the biggest readers or romance. But those assumptions are a whole other can of worms; I want to talk about the idea of putting oneself in the place of the characters in the book.
There are some stories where a character who is a reader’s proxy is essential, so they can ask the pertinent questions. Doctor Watson is our reader proxy to say “Good Lord, Holmes, how did you work that out?” Sidekicks of various kinds can often serve this function – Dr. Who companions come to mind.
But where do I fit in here?
People often talk about “identifying” with a character, but what do they really mean by it? Characters should be identifiable as human (unless they’re not human, of course) with human motives and desires, even if the reader doesn’t share those motives and desires. They have to be fundamentally understandable. We understand the idea of ambition and greed for power, even if we’d never arrange for a co-worker to be framed for embezzlement to secure a promotion, or have a rival for gang leadership killed. So it’s certainly possible to identify with a character without thinking of yourself in their place.
I personally have never “got” the idea of putting myself in the shoes of one of the lovers in a romance, not even in straight romance where the shoes that would fit me are bit more obvious. Who do you even choose in a m/m romance? I want to watch the characters having their romance and adventures, and root for them to win through. I want to aspire to being as clever, brave or determined as they might be. But I can’t say I’m seeing myself down amongst them in the story having this stuff happening to me.
Is this maybe more of a writerly trait than a readerly one? As I writer I’m used to the idea of moving the characters around and having them do stuff and suffer reverses and troubles. And though they come from my mind, once they are on paper they also become something outside of me, so I can’t just think of them as me with a different face. Am I more a voyeur of characters than an identifier with characters?
How about you? Do you fantasise yourself into the story, or are you watching the shenanigans from the edges?