Identification

At the moment, I’m starting to look into concepts around how readers (and gamers/viewers) connect with characters, or how identification happens.

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There’s a few different thoughts around identification: does the reader want to BE that character? Do they imagine themselves AS the character? Or does the reader hold themselves outside of the character, observing and judging the situations and events?

It’s not as simple as “readers connect with the main character” (and definitely not that the main character has to be likable to be identifiable!). In some books, the main protagonist is the alienated viewpoint. Say, feed by M T Anderson – the main character, Titus, is this solipsistic teen in a highly commercial and capitalistic future. In this future, kids have an internet implant (the feed) in their brain (imagine having thoughts getting interrupted by ads). Except for Violet, who sees the world “as it truly is” without the implant and questions everything. Even though the book is written entirely through Titus’ perspective, empathy and identification goes more to Violet. The book is even dedicated “To all those who resist the feed.”

In film studies, identification is also complicated, with commentators distinguishing between primary identification (with the camera) and secondary identification (the character of empathic choice) (Clover 7-8).

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Evil Dead awesomeness. Dem camera moves!

… just as attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmares, so they are expressions of the same viewer in horror film. We are both Red Riding Hood and the Wolf; the force of the experience, in horror, comes from “knowing” both sides of the story. ~ Carol Clover

I’m still fairly new to looking into video game studies, but in searching for stuff around this topic, I found an interesting study on identification in three ways: avatar identification (roleplay, customisation and escapism), group identification (socialising and relationships) and game identification (advancement and mechanics).

sera2newCharacter customisation is huge for me and how I play Warcraft.

Identification is more than just “I like X”, but is important also in part because of the general perception that watching/reading/playing can influence you, the typical example being that playing violent video games makes you commit real world violence – which I totally reject. fool

Identification is also interesting in terms of genre. For example, with romance, it’s probably safe to say most people assume that the reader identifies with the heroine. And for a while the heroine as narrator was pretty established, however from perhaps around the 80’s this began to change as reader’s wanted to see the narrative from the heroes point of view. Author Laura Kinsale proposed in “The Androgynous Reader” that actually, the romance reader identifies with the hero, as the reader is represented by and also in competition with the heroine. Kinsale argued that “through her own and the hero’s eyes, the reader watches and judges the heroine” (35).

Which leads me onto what I’ve been looking at as a case study for all this: Twilight!giphyOn Meyer’s website, she states that “I left out a detailed description of Bella in the book so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes.” This goes back to the Mills and Boon adoption of “Lubbock’s Law”:

Lubbock’s Law was derived from Percy Lubbock, critic and author, who published The Craft of Fiction in 1921. Lubbock maintained that the best fiction, such as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, succeeded in part because the author wrote from the heroine’s point of view. ‘to have lived with their creations is to have lived with them as well,’ Lubbock maintained. Fiction, he added, must ‘look true’.~ Joseph McAleer

How Meyer interprets how reader’s identify with Bella was also extended to the choice of casting:

For every actress that has been suggested as Bella in the past few years, there are always a slew of critics that cry, “But she doesn’t look like Bella!” (Which can often be translated thusly: “She doesn’t look like ME!”) To this I would like to say: “Of course she doesn’t!” Bella is a fictional character, and she looks different to everyone. As is the same with every actor who will be cast in the next few months, no one is going to match up with your mental picture exactly—or mine.

Bella’s apparent blandness or blankness of personality was also picked up on by critics as a device for identification:

Unfortunately, the books are tough to defend. There’s no doubt, for instance, that Bella is a remarkably droopy, drippy character, and while her blankness could be justified as a device, enabling readers to identify with her (which has obviously happened to an extraordinary degree), she also has a weird clumsiness, a haplessness that means her vampire boyfriend has to rescue her regularly. ~ Kira Cochrane, The Guardian

Concerns about Bella’s passivity neglect to consider how the books invite identification with the main character. For this to be possible, there have to be certain gaps in her characterisation, but these gaps are designed to be filled in by readers with their own characteristics. ~ Catherine Strong, The Age

As Crawford examines in his chapter on the fandom and the controversy of Twilight, it is often claimed to be bad for readers, because if they identify with Bella (through such claims in fan reviews as wanting to be Bella or wanting to marry Edward etc) then they have a role model who has low self-esteem, is submissive, is passive and all that jazz – but then he asks “does the fact that someone identifies with a fictional character really imply that they view them as ‘a model for [their own] real-life choices’?” The argument against Bella and Twilight is also used for 50 Shades, such as with this article snarkily titled “Christian Grey is not real”. Crawford sees this argument as rather reductive, and also perhaps with implicit discrimination against readers (of Twilight) “because of their presumed youth and femaleness … often seem to be assumed, a priori, to lack the critical faculties necessary to distinguish between fantasy and reality.” This will be no surprise to fans of romance, or even young adult literature.

Dylan-Moran

So TL;DR, there’s a bunch of theories of how identification works, but it’s important to think about because society thinks that identification with fictional characters will lead to bad things, particularly if the work is about about sex or violence or is aimed towards younger readers.

Recommended Reading

  • Men, Women and Chainsaws by Carol Clover ~ A study of horror films from the 70’s to mid 80’s and how identification works (using a psychoanalytical framework) and how it is gendered.
  • Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon by Joseph McAleer ~ A very detailed history of how Mills & Boon became one of the biggest publishing names in the world
  • The Romance Revolution: Erotic Novels for Women and the Quest for a New Sexual Identity by Carol Thurston ~ A slightly older work, on how romance and women in romance were changing in the 70’s and 80’s due to the new wave of feminism.
  • “The Androgynous Reader.” by Laura Kinsale in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. ~ How reader identification works with romances (this is not an academic work, but rather from the perspective of an author of romances – however, quite a few academics pick up on this and extend the work, such as Amber Botts “Cavewoman Impulses: The Jungian Shadow Archetype in Popular Romance Fiction” in Romantic Conventions edited by Anne K Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek.)
  • The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance by Joseph Crawford ~ awesome history of the paranormal romance, its gothic associations, and including a reader response chapter on “The Twilight Controversy”
  • Player Identification in Online Games: Validation of a Scale for Measuring Identification in MMOG’s by Jan Van Looy, Cedric Courtois, Melanie De Vocht and Lieven De Marez in Media Psychology Vol 15.2 (2012).
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Tom and Nyssa Talk Zombies (with @Cacotopos and @VintageZombie)

<< Nyssa: As one does, I talk about zombies a lot on twitter. My mate Tom & I got into a discussion recently and we thought we’d explore the issue further! Click on the link above for more details as we explore their agency (or not), their biology, their powers and what actually makes a zombie film!  >>

Dark Sylvan Ungulate

When I talk zombies online, I inevitably talk zombies with my Twitter pal Nyssa Harkness, who is writing (and apparently finishing it before she dies) a Masters thesis on zombies in literature and film.

OY!

Oh hey! Today Nyssa joins me to talk about zombies in film and literature! I’ve marked my text in black and hers in indented, bloody red. I hope it’s enough!

Also I’d like to thank Gary Kemble for the banner picture – that’s from Brisbane Zombiewalk 2011, with me and my son there on the right! I think I zombie-kidnapped him.

I’m not really a zombie expert in terms of having watched every classic zombie movie, but it seems from our discussions that I have at least some contribution to make in this area, specifically by throwing a sabot into the finely tuned semantic engines used to frame a discussion on zombies.

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The Changing Face of the Monster

Over some mocha this morning I was thinking (coffee required for brain function). Everyone blames Twilight for dumbing down the vampire. People right out despise Twilight for changing vampires. They’re supposed to be monsters, people cry out in rage, not lovers! As my focus is also on a monster-turned-romantic-interest, Twilight has some sort of weird interest for me. I don’t particularly like it, I think Bella is weak and the writing not great – but there’s a part of me that knows that if I’d read it as a teenager (probably <15; maybe what would be considered a tween now), I would have loved it.vampires

Vampires had already completely saturated mainstream culture before Twilight. They were domesticated by their commodification. Fred Botting discusses this: the vampire is now a familiar and consumable figure. His references for this go much earlier than Twilight, with Dracula as a superhero in 1962 and the amusing Count Duckula, but especially Anne Rice (he doesn’t specifically mention Twilight in this section, although this book was published three years afterwards, but I haven’t finished reading it all yet!). This has created a new site of identification for the vampire.

“Vampires cease to be threats to individual and social identity and curiously give shape to the unformed mass of desires, cravings and appetites called the consumer” (Botting 41)

So the vampire loses its weirdness.  This sort of goes against a lot of monster theory. The vampire is no longer uncanny – something that was once familiar and has since become repressed (Freudian theory). True Otherness is a return of the repressed. Foucault argued “What makes a human monster a monster is not just its exceptionality relative to the species form … the human monster combines the impossible and the forbidden” (Foucault in Levina and Bui, 5). For Derrida, a monster is something that is unknown, abnormal, it frightens because there is no anticipating it. Once it is known, once the monster is seen as a monster, “one begins to domesticate it” (Derrida in Levina and Bui, 6). In Twilight Edward says vampires could have evolved side-by-side with humans – Darwinian evolution rather than supernatural presence.

“The vampire is warmly embraced, included, naturalised, humanised in an appropriative liberal gesture that is scarcely tenable given the vampire’s historical construction as that which is both most proximate and alien to human identity”(Botting 41)

We know what vampires and zombies are now. We know their weaknesses, we know their  strengths. What is left to explore? As Hildebrand-Burke demonstrates in his post on modern horror, we seem to stick to the past view of monsters rather than looking to the future. Why can’t we create new monsters? Why stick to the 19th century imagery of what a vampire is, or the 1970s-80s version of what a zombie is? Fear comes from change, from what is unknown. Nina Auerbach proposes “every age embraces the vampire it needs” (although embrace might be a bit strong. Every age CREATES the vampire it needs?).

Although Twilight and the books I’m looking at are romances or contain romantic elements (romances = romance is the main plot & must have a happy ending. Romantic elements = romance is supplementary to the story), they change the monster and yet are reviled for it. Most modern vampires laugh at the suggestion that a Christian Cross or garlic can stop them. Is this not making the familiar monster unfamiliar again? They are changing the rules of the game and disturbing the knowledge that makes us safe. Why do we even want to restrict this change?zombies

Recommended Reading

  • Where are all the Monster Books? by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
  • Guide to writing modern horror by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
  • The Limits of Horror by Fred Botting
  • Monster Culture in the 21st Century edited by Marina Levina and Diem My Bui (check the Introduction by the editors, and Domesticating the Monstrous in a Globalizing World chapter by Carolyn Harford)
  • Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture edited by Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger
  • The Living Dead: A study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature by James B Twitchell
  • The Real Twilight: True stories of Modern Day Vampires by Arlene Russo
  • A Taste of True Blood: The Fangbangers Guide edited by Leah Wilson
  • The Changing Vampire of Film and Television: A critical study of the growth of a genre by Tim Kane

*Images from the Sims 3: Supernatural promotional material

Uhoh! There was a monster in my bed*

Last night I was with Kate Forsyth and Matt Finch at the NSW Writers’ Centre talking about monsters. This post will be a bit of an overlap between what was said then and some extra things I wanted to throw out there for writers and readers of children’s and YA literature on how academia views the novels you write/read, how gaming constructs narrative and more on zombies, because they are awesome.

~

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Being an Academic

There’s usually a fair gap between academia and the actual artists (Apart from my two lovely panelists!). Artists accuse academics of reading things into their work that they didn’t actually put there, academics will try to locate artists work in the greater sense of social/cultural identity. So I’ll give a quick rundown of some of the more general things academics say about children’s and YA authors in particular.

All writing is ideological. Whether you intend it or not, a lot of scholars see writing as something that reflects, reenacts or rejects society in some way. The way you present what a child is, is ideologically based. As Kate said, our construction of childhood is entirely modern and not at all how past, future, or even other present societies view childhood! As an example, you’ve no doubt seen the rise of the ‘tween’ in the past decade or so. This is not something that goes against our entire history of being. It is something created, but all our categories and definitions are (changing definitions/words in the dictionary are another excellent example, language is a living thing).

In writing a story, scholars say, you are positioning the reader into a particular view. If writing a realist novel (recently, I read Junk by Melvin Burgess, so that can be my example), you don’t really expect the reader to come out of reading it thinking drugs are totally awesome and they should go out and try them now. Not just for ethical, moral and legal reasons, but you use certain words, certain strategies of writing and of course plot to try to align the reader. In fantasy, you may not expect someone to think The Dark Lord is awesome and they should totes go join a gang of evil peeps now! Readers, of course, will take from the work what they will (and you can’t stop that! Everyone brings their own experiences to a text).

What you intend, as much as how you use narrative strategies to position one character as “good” or the hero, and another as bad, is important and from this, an ‘ideal reader’ or ‘subject position’ is created – as far as what I believe and the academics I follow, the authors intentions are not  literally able to be read in the text, it is only through narrative strategies that we ascertain this subject position. What you don’t intend, to the academic, doesn’t matter as much as your story. I used the example last night of how there are quite a few dystopias around the idea (or ideological positioning) of technology as something that is cutting us off from nature. While you may just be intending just to write a good story about a world falling apart, there are criticisms (as you would expect in reviews anyway) that maybe this intensely negative view of technology is actually teaching children to fear the future.

Being a writer, you are given great power. Childhood and adolescence is considered a time when we are forming our idea of what our identity is and where we fit in society. Some academics say that it is even the role of fiction – Children’s literature is for affirming the self and personal power, but YA lit is for inducting the adolescent into society, our structures and institutions. It comes at a time in their lives (assuming the ideal reader – I’m an adult and I read YA!) when their sense of self is malleable and adapting to the new information they are drinking in, and that doesn’t have to come only from non-fiction.

Recommended Reading

  • Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman. 1992.
  • Trites, Roberta S. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 2000.
  • McCallum, Robyn. Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction. New York: Routledge. 1999
  • Applebaum, Noga. Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. New York: Routledge. 2010.
  • James, Kathryn. Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. New York: Routledge. 2009

sekhaBeing a Gamer

I have somewhere about 500 or so books … I think. Haven’t sat down and catalogued them all for a while. But with games, I generally go back to the same two (the others are more seasonal playing), World of Warcraft and The Sims, and they are very different in terms of storytelling.

World of Warcraft is a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game with two factions that hate each other – The Alliance (your typical European humanoids, humans, night elves, dwarves, gnomes, werewolves (called worgen)) and the Horde (your traditional villains, orcs, trolls, tauren (which are half-cow, half-human), undead, blood elves and goblins). There is an overarching storyline, following on from the other Warcraft games, where the Orcs invaded Azeroth through a Dark Portal and the humans defended their land, but at one point, the creation of the Portals between worlds actually tore the Orcs homeworld asunder and they were isolated from their people. Each race has their own story of how they came to be (e.g. Blood Elves are elves that got addicted to fel or demonic energies) and there are also quests in the game which contain mini-stories.

While you play as a Hero (for whatever faction), essentially you don’t have any control over the storyline or influence. While there are numerous options with what you can do each day (crafting, dungeons, exploring, farming, pet battling, playing Player vs Player), you can’t change the storyline. Even if you might agree with the big villain of the expansion (there’s always at least one big villain), you cannot change the outcome and probably, if you raid, you will have to kill them anyway. You can manipulate your own perception of your character, even if you don’t role play specifically, choosing clothes, companion pets (which don’t fight with you in battle, but are more like little pokemon), titles (such as Elder, Noble, Kingslayer, etc).

The Sims on the other hand, is more a sandbox game. You don’t have to do anything, nothing is set in stone and there’s no path to follow. A few pre-made families have their own background story and personalities, but anything that happens is up to you. You can only control one family at a time, and you can guide them to their dreams of becoming a CEO, or build a wall around their pool and forcibly kill them. The Sims doesn’t use English either, it’s an invented language called Simlish, so you can even make up what they are saying.

There’s a lot to love about the Sims because of the freedom in storytelling. You can tell the Sim where to go and what to do, and (forcibly) influence their whole life. The Sims community is extremely inventive as well! They share stories, videos (called machinima), their families, even create self-sims to explore how they want to live their life. You can take Sims from birth to death (and even beyond death, as you can play as ghosts too!), fulfill their dreams or ruin them, and from generation to generation.

There’s nothing to say what the future of storytelling in games are, but there are some games, such as by Telltale (including the Walking Dead game) where it’s more like a choose your own adventure, you are given a world and a character and a situation, and then choices on how you act and what you say – and those decisions influence the story. This is a very particular gameplay slowly on the rise. Could gaming have an impact on how we organise novels and stories in the future?

9199346Being a Zombologist-in-training

There are two types of monsters or villains that I like best – one is the villain that believes they are doing the best thing, for society or themselves or their family; the other is the relentless enemy that you can’t stop or reason with – the zombie!

Between the panelists last night, we agreed that for us, monsters are representative. Freud believed monsters to be a symbol of repression – whether on a societal level or personal level, something that was once familiar and homely, now foreign and Other. For children’s and YA, the slaying of this monster can be hugely empowering on many levels. I rather think that monsters can also be un-embodied entities, such as a whole society. While it can be a horrendous and heartbreaking journey to defeat one enemy, imagine battling all of society for justice – the odds are not in our favour.

That is essentially what zombies are. They are seen to be many things, our fears or anxieties about race (originally when zombies were misappropriated from Haitian lore into Hollywood, it was all about showing the barbarism and danger of blacks, particularly the danger of black men/magic controlling white women), consumerism (of course, Dawn of the Dead!), and more recently, terrorism and economic crisis and refugees. These days, zombies are the conversion of a HUGE chunk of society into mindless beings that only want your flesh or brains (the eating of flesh comes from Romero, the eating of brains from Return of the Living Dead and O’Bannon – it’s not “the original zombie” at all! *insert long-winded rant here*). The history of the monster is the history of the culture itself (just as how childhood is a historical and social construction).

There are other theories of course, that monsters are a psychological universal. Derrida argued that monsters are created by the unrecognisable and the unpredictable; once it is recognised, it’s no longer a monster (perhaps an argument for evil, seducing vampires -> sparkly, vegetarian vampires?). Could go down the path of “it’s the author letting out their own subconscious fears and defeating them”. Multitudes of theories!

But monsters and villains and evil is important, particularly in children’s/YA. I mentioned last night that there is quite a bit of criticism from the academic community that it is expected that children’s/YA lit needs a happy ending, or at the very least, an ambiguous ending (of which some other scholars believes subdues the actual effect of the literature, particularly dystopia where the moral of the story is that we need to act now so we don’t lose our humanity in the future, but you’ll never see a child get the same ending as Winston from 1984). Of course, we can all think of examples where that is not true, where the character does not triumph, dies, or falls into depravity, but a positive or ambiguous outcome is the cultural expectation. For the reader to feel empowered, there usually needs to be a resolution (Kate used the example of someone literally throwing down a book that had no real ending). With ‘traditional’ (Romero) zombies, it’s particularly hard to create a happy ending because everything is just gone. Society is gone, humanity is gone, all that is left is a life spent scavenging and in hiding. A tough play for an author, if you only stick to one view of what a zombie is…

Recommended Reading

  • Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Ed. Stephanie Boluk & Wylie Lenz. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2011.
  • Triumph of the Walking Dead: Robert Kirkman’s zombie epic on page and screen. Ed James Lowder. Dallas: Banbella Books, 2011.
  • Zombies are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead. Ed. Christopher M Moreman & Cory James Rushton. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2011.
  • Bishop, Kyle W. American Zombie Gothic. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2010.
  • Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader Ed. Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui. New York: Bloomsbury. 2013.
  • Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. Eds. Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro. New York: Fordham University Press. 2011.
  • Zombies, Vampires and Philosophy. Eds Richard Greene and K Silem Mohammad. Chicago: Open Court Publishing. 2010.

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Conclusion

If there is anything to take from the talk last night, it’s from what Kate said: Darkness is NECESSARY in children’s and YA literature. If you take away that, you take away the power. There’s an importance in retelling too, as Kate said ‘as a creative artist it’s our job to recreate tales, and find new ways to tell stories.’ That’s very true for monsters as well. Monsters adapt and change as society does. They fill a certain void that we need filled (yes, even the romantic ones!). As much as people cried out “Those aren’t zombies!” when Warm Bodies came out, their idea of what a zombie IS is tainted by cultural tradition (as much as we all love Romero, he didn’t invent zombies, he reinvented them!). That’s the power of the author, scriptwriter or storyteller. To tell the story that needs to be told, not what society dictates the monster or villain traditionally is and always should be.

~

* ❤ Lady Gaga

 

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