One of the most common justifications for people to love a book is the level of comfort with the characters hinging on the sense that the character is just like you.
It’s a very commonly made point, and it is usually not just a fictional character’s resemblance to your personality, but also similarities in situations or settings to the reader’s own life.
For many people, fiction becomes a kind of mirror to view slightly distorted but otherwise fairly accurate representations of their lives or their hopes and dreams.
It gives rise to the question as to what angle different people approach literature from. The view I discussed above is a valid and understandable way to approach fiction- It’s only human to want to see representations of yourself in the things you read and watch.
However, I also think that approach is a bit self-limiting. Quite often, I want something a bit different which means I don’t often prioritise books that give me that comfortable level of familiarity.
I want to be disoriented and metaphorically shaken around and I want to get into the heads of people (albeit fictional people) completely different from me. I have enough of real life in, you know, real life without wanting to have it replicated in the books I read.
Certainly, I don’t want to pick up a book because the description of a key character makes him sound exactly like yours truly.
Take the ‘unsympathetic character’ complaint-I’ve occasionally used it myself. People read a book and can’t quite get into it because the characters are not easy to warm up to, But why are we always looking for that level of rapport with characters? It is fiction after all.
I usually prefer reading characters that are radically different from me. I don’t want to nod in recognition- I want to feel that I’m tapping into a mindset that I don’t understand.
It is why truly evil characters or anti-heroes can make great books or why deluded misfits like Don Quixote can inspire truly great literature. There’s a lot to be said for being shaken out of your comfort zone. Ultimately you can feel great love or hate for characters that are nothing like you or anyone you know.
For me, this extends beyond characters and encompasses fictional situations as well. People are often turned off by the plot or setting if it takes them out of a certain comfort level that usually fits in with their own personal experiences.
It is one reason that genre like science-fiction has trouble achieving popularity among book-readers. The setting and plot framework usually strike the readers as being too alien (I hope you’ll forgive the pun). But surely, that should make the journey even more worthwhile?
I think readers should always be willing to challenge themselves by taking on characters, themes and settings that they would normally have no interest in.
The characters may be nothing like you, and the subject matter may be difficult or unconventional but that shouldn’t be a barrier to broadening literary horizons.
I think fiction shouldn’t just encompass the comforting experience of self-recognition- it should also be about educating and challenging yourself.