Bookselves: identifying with characters

Like every other young woman in the last 200 years, I firmly believe that I am Elizabeth Bennet. It’s weird how so many people identify so strongly with this one character. But we are all inclined to do this, we find ourselves in the fictional characters we love.

Jane Austen is the master at this. Her heroines are distinct, individual characters, and yet as a reader it’s hard not to see something of yourself in them. Emma Woodhouse, Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor or Marianne Dashwood are all, in a lot of ways, aspirational, they’re pretty and clever and talented, so maybe it’s just that we all want to be like that, but I think it’s their flaws which make comparisons so easy to draw. I can see myself in Lizzy’s judgement of Darcy, in Emma’s belief that she knows best, in the way Elinor gets in her own way.

It’s not unusual, but the first character I can remember feeling this way about is Hermione Granger. I’m pretty sure there were others before then, but Hermione is the one who’s stuck with me. She was clever and socially inept and loved books, and a bit of a know-it-all, which I was then and still am now, although, like Hermione, my social ineptitude isn’t as bad as it once was.

Most recently, it has been Mhairi MacFarlane’s heroines, who are struggling to figure it out, much like me. I think those books came into my life at the right time for me to identify with the characters, because I’m not actually all that much like any of them, but I do identify with their experiences.

I do this with characters less and less as I grow up. These days, I want to learn something about the world from books a lot of the time, and it’s hard to do that through the lens of someone just like me. Where I do “identify” with a character, like with the Mhairi MacFarlane characters I talked about, it’s not that the characters and I share traits, it’s just something about them kind of makes sense to me in an instinctive way. Most of the the time though, I’m more interested in seeing outside myself.

Although that’s not to say that I don’t reread Pride and Prejudice every year. Some things never change.


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