So, there’s this concept that tends to get batted around a lot by readers and casual critics, but which tends to get looked down on by more serious/academic critics: “identifying with a character.” The main issue with it is that it’s tremendously vague; you obviously don’t think you are the character (unless you’re otherkin, I suppose), so what does “identifying with” someone mean? Is it that you empathize with the character’s situation or motivations? Is it that you recognize the character as being convincingly a person–that they are well-rounded? Is it that you like the character? It’s a difficult concept to pin down, and therefore not particularly helpful in most analysis.
But I’ve been watching Babylon 5 with a friend who’s never seen it before (we just finished the second season), and she became utterly engrossed in the character of Talia. She was utterly crushed by Talia’s tragic final episode, even moreso than the previous episode (the space AIDS one). We talked a little about why it affected her so much, and she explained that Talia’s arc–slowly realizing that the organization to which she’s dedicated her life is deeply corrupt, and as a result beginning to question the fundamental beliefs that define her world, which in turn results in her losing what she thought of as her family–mirrors my friend’s experiences growing up in what amounts to a cult, recognizing how controlling and evil it was, becoming an atheist, and ultimately having to break all ties with her family for her own health and safety.
It made me consider something I’ve written about here before, namely that Fluttershy appears to me to be the most pitch-perfect depiction of someone struggling with Avoidant Personality Disorder I’ve ever seen, and that this is the main reason she’s my favorite pony. For lack of a better term, I identify with her, and very strongly.
So, tentatively, I think I can define “identifying with” a character as something more fundamental than empathizing with them or recognizing them as people. Rather, it’s identifying something in the character that signifies a corresponding element in yourself, which in turn makes it possible to recognize them as human or empathize with them. Thus defined… well, it’s still a bit too personal for most analysis, but it’s still something that can go in the toolbox for occasional use.