This is part 4 in a 4-part series. Read part 1 here.
So far we've talked about how immersive and powerful stories can be as well as how that immersive experience can effect our moral judgment. In this final post, I want to talk about where, specifically that power usually comes from: the characters.
The connection between an audience and the characters of a story is so strong that the characters become part of who we are. Having experienced a story through its characters, we naturally adopt some of the attributes of those characters into our own self-concept (Slater et al. 445). What is it that connects us so powerfully with the characters in the first place? We've talked about how stories expand our ability to act by giving us characters to act through, but where does that connection with the characters actually come from?
Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist wrote a book called "Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others". Being a neuroscientist, Iacoboni's book deals with the biological makeup of the brain and how that makeup affects our ability to empathize with people -- real and fictional -- around us. In his book, he talks about mirror neurons, which are cells in the brain that promote empathy. They allow us to feel what others are feeling simply by observing their actions and expressions. These cells let us not only imagine what a person in emotional pain is going through, but make us experience that pain for ourselves. They're responsible for all the wadded up tissues on the floor of chick-flick night, the wincing when you see someone hurt, and all of the "I know how you feel"s that people express when you go through a difficult time. When talking about fictional characters specifically, Iacoboni states that we get emotional during heartbreaking scenes in film because we "literally experience the same feelings ourselves" (Iacoboni 4). Iacoboni's work also states that mirror neurons are activated when we observe someone performing an action, such as playing tennis or basketball (5). As we watch someone play basketball, our brain analyzes the player's actions and makes us feel as though we're playing the game ourselves (5). Why do the actions of characters in stories feel so much like our own? Because to our minds, there's no difference (Slater et al. 443).
The behavior of the characters in a story is the biggest factor in determining its influence over its audience. In the last post, we talked briefly about how the likability of a character determines to a large degree how righteous the audience interprets the character's actions to be. Heroes or likable characters behaving in a moral way promotes morality. Villains or unlikable characters behaving in an immoral way also promotes morality. One of the biggest trends in the media and entertainment industry at the moment is the antihero. Many of the most popular television shows of the past several years have centered around characters who seem to constantly be making decisions that most people would consider morally wrong (Shafer and Raney 1028). The book "Media and the Moral Mind" explains that the widespread appeal of "morally complex" characters in popular shows such as Dexter or Breaking Bad comes from the fact that those characters are often more complex than typical protagonists (Tamborini ). Human beings are infinitely complex, it seems, and characters who exhibit behavior that is purely moral or purely immoral can be hard to relate to. Antiheroes, on the other hand, are flawed by definition, which can make them more appealing to audiences looking for a character to identify with (Hoorn and Konijn 250-268). If characters are to be truly relatable, they should be flawed. Conflict is the fuel that drives stories forward, after all. But how far into moral ambiguity can a character be pushed before having a detrimental effect on the audience?
The danger in telling stories that center around morally-compromised protagonists is that the audience begins to justify the actions of those characters in their minds, especially if there are no apparent consequences to those actions. A study by Tamborini and a few of his colleagues found that behavior of more likable characters was seen as more righteous, and thus more justifiable than the exact same behavior in less likeable characters. Furthermore, whether the characters were rewarded or punished for their behavior had an effect on whether or not the outcomes of those behaviors were seen as right or wrong (Tamborini et al. 635). In other words, when a character that the audience likes does something immoral, the audience finds a way to excuse the character's behavior in order to continue enjoying the story (Tamborini 160). This makes sense if we think about how we experience the characters' actions as our own. If the immoral behavior goes unpunished or has no negative consequences, those feelings of justification are reinforced. If the effects on the audience's moral judgment are to be positive, the consequences for a character's actions should reflect whether those actions were right or wrong. If a protagonist is allowed to kill, steal, or commit adultery with impunity, it suggests to the audience that those acts are justifiable, at least in certain cases.
I'm not saying that a story needs to be devoid of conflict, nor am I suggesting that protagonists should all be perfectly righteous all of the time. I just think that all of us, as consumers of stories and storytellers alike, should be aware of the effect that stories have on us and the people around us. If you want to retain and uphold your belief that sex is a sacred thing, maybe avoid the stories that treat it as something casual. If you don't want your kids to think that violence is okay, maybe don't buy them video games that have them shooting other players with no apparent consequence.
Each of us uses moral intuition to make decisions every day. Those decisions, made one at a time, slowly shape who we are. For better or worse, stories affect which direction our moral compasses point. The shows I've watched, the books I've read, and the films I've seen have all shaped who I am. My favorite stories are a part of me that I cherish. I revisit them often, reading or watching them, again and again, to remind myself why I love them and to enjoy the sense of "expanded agency" that they give me (Slater et al. 443). On the other hand, I've occasionally found myself immersed in stories that have left me feeling ugly on the inside. Those stories I hope to forget and never come back to. As a whole, stories have enriched my life. A well-crafted, immersive story is a beautiful thing on its own, but coupling that with the potential it has to impact the world makes it an absolute marvel.
I stated earlier that the purpose of this post was not to weigh in on what is right or wrong, which is mostly true. But the main point I want to make is an argument over one moral issue: that no matter what factors into his or her moral belief system, a storyteller has a moral responsibility to promote truth in their stories. The power to alter an audience's moral judgment is big deal, and as uncle Ben famously stated: “With great power comes great responsibility”.
I’m sorry if this spiel reads too much like an academic paper, but I wanted to present it in a way that was well thought out and investigated. More than anything else in my professional career, I want to be a good storyteller, and knowing the impact that stories have had on my life makes me want to make sure that the way my stories impact the world is a positive one. The stories that I tell will communicate truths that I believe. As a father of four kids, I feel a responsibility to provide as much good for them to experience as I can. Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this thing and for letting me know your thoughts. This has been weighing on my mind for a long time and it's something I'm truly passionate about. The passion may have been lost to you in all the research, but it's there and it's burning hot. Story is something I love to talk about and this is just one small aspect of it. If you ever want to talk, just drop me a line. I get busy sometimes, but I always read everything that's sent to me.
All the best,
This is part 4 of a 4-part series. Read part 1 here.
Eden, Allison, et al. "Repeated Exposure to Narrative Entertainment and the Salience of Moral Intuitions." Journal of Communication 64.3 (2014): 501-20. Web.
Fanti, Kostas A., et al. "Desensitization to Media Violence Over a Short Period of Time." Aggressive Behavior 35.2 (2009): 179-87. Web. Jul 18, 2017.
Hoorn, Johan F., and Elly A. Konijn. "Perceiving and Experiencing Fictional Characters: An Integrative Account1." Japanese Psychological Research 45.4 (2003): 250-68. Web.
Rubenking, Bridget, and Annie Lang. "Captivated and Grossed Out: An Examination of Processing Core and Sociomoral Disgusts in Entertainment Media." Journal of Communication 64.3 (2014): 543-65. Web.
Shafer, Daniel M., and Arthur A. Raney. "Exploring how we Enjoy Antihero Narratives." Journal of Communication 62.6 (2012): 1028-46. Web.
Slater, Michael D., et al. "Temporarily Expanding the Boundaries of the Self: Motivations for Entering the Story World and Implications for Narrative Effects." Journal of Communication 64.3 (2014): 439-55. Web. Jun 5, 2017.
Tamborini, Ron. Media and the Moral Mind. 1. publ. ed. New York [u.a.]: Routledge, 2013. Web.
"YourMorals.Org." YourMorals.Org. Web. Jul 17, 2017 <http://>.