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Can Cartoons Change The World?
Character topic: Why do we buy into characters?

"Characters have to have a life, to come alive"

October 1st, 2013

Can Cartoons Change The World?

The Caretoons Contest of Philadelphia's National Liberty Museum


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Character Topic

Why do we buy into characters?

A European IP Developer recently started a popular discussion in the Characters Engage Linkedin group, wondering why it is possible for us to be engaged by characters we know not to be alive.

A Canadian Modeler thought that we buy into characters because we empathize with their struggles. Our own experiences help us to understand what they are going through. He wondered why we feel bad, when we hear of soldiers being wounded in battle, for example. If we don't know the soldiers personally, they are like fictious characters to us. Yet, despite this, we feel for them.

According to the owner of an American animation company, the ability to identify with a character to the point of it coming "alive" for us, depends on whether it speaks to what's important to us.

The IP Developer agreed that a character's backstory needs to be relevant. He went on to say, though, that the question of what makes us want to engage with what we know to be a construct in the first place, still remains.

Children could just play with their friends, and adults could meet for a chat, instead. Our friends are both real, and relevant to us. So why do we, as a species, enjoy engaging with fictional characters, when we have the real thing to engage with?

The IP Developer made this fine distinction because he suspected that the answer may be of fundamental importance to our understanding of characters.

In response, the Managing Director of a UK games company said that the question hinges on how we define the word "alive". Characters, he explained, are very much alive... in our minds.

The American animation company owner, on the other hand, thought the answer to the question lies in the fact that we are a social species. Humans literally lose their minds without social interaction, because the need to engage with others is part of our genetic makeup.

Again, the IP Developer agreed. We are indeed hard wired to be social, he said. In fact, we are the most socially capable species on earth. Even our closest cousins, the chimps, can't empathize or put themselves in each others shoes, the way we can.

Making characters come alive in our minds, though, is made possible by our ability to speak. Language enables us to do extraordinary things. We can tell stories, relate events, news, and ideas. We can hypothesize, plan and do all the other things that distinguish us from every other organism on this planet. Language elevates us from a social animal to a cultural creature. It is our means of sharing information, and that makes it the most fundamental building block of our culture.

The birth of storytelling, and characters, the IP Developer thought, lies at the intersection between our genetically predisposed social nature, and language.

As social creatures we have an inbred interest in others. Language makes it possible for us to create a representation of someone that manages to trigger our emotions, just as a real interaction with that person would.

In closing, the IP Developer summarized a number of important points that had been made during the discussion, in an effort to explain why we engage with fictional characters to the point of enjoying them.

As social creatures, he said, we need social interaction. Without it, we deteriorate, mentally.

Stories and characters trigger our emotions, just as interactions with real people do. We enjoy characters because we enjoy people.

Characters, therefore, are substitute people.

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