Why do we like someone? Why are we drawn to certain people more than others, especially if a situation was different we wouldn’t even give a person a second glance. Why some relationships are so hard to explain? There has to be some complex solution to liking someone right? A combination of numerous factors, pheromones, and good grooming right? Not quite, psychology has boiled it down to two simple characteristics, similarity and propinquity.
Similarity is a form of mental distance, how closely we align, or believe we align with someone else. The ways in which we can find similarity in others include matches in attitudes, beliefs, values, communication skills, interpersonal styles (think MBTI, which I’ll cover later), and demographics. Think about it, we’re not going to sustain a conversation, let alone a relationship, with someone who we have nothing in common. But what about apparent opposites? Think about the couple who, after spending time as an outsider, you ask yourself, what are they doing together? This is where propinquity comes in. It refers to both the psychological closeness and the physical closeness of individuals. Similarity is what draws people to each other, but propinquity is what leads to a deeper level of connection or helps foster a deeper level of connection. When we are physically close to someone (think of work or school setting), while initially two individuals may have little in common at first observation, but through being “forced” together, they find deeper levels of similarity that may not have been immediately apparent. Through having to spend time together this deeper level of connection begins to emerge. The same is true for psychological closeness; while it may not be immediately apparent to an outside observer, individuals identify similarities at a deeper, non-surface level (think opposites attract). These two process together are what begin and foster long term relationships with others.
As authors, these two processes can make a difference between a character and an impactful character. There is a benefit to sitting down and really thinking about our target reading audience. By identifying characteristics of this group, we can create characters that are similar to this group that and mimic their own life experiences and challenges. An example questions to ask ourselves is “What are some common universal experiences of young adults?” The experiences of young adults are going to be different than a character who is designed to appeal to middle aged adults or children. A mismatch on this level will result in low identification with our characters, and subsequently low investment in our story, since our reader won’t care what happens our character. Additionally, this may also be why there is a benefit to multiple books revolving around the same core cast of characters (e.g. Twilight, Harry Potter, the Sooki novels, Iron Man). By having reoccurring characters, our readers identify with them in our first introductory work, but then as our universe/story progresses they become closer to the characters as they identify more similarities, and that deeper identification with them, that creates loyalty and longevity for the author.
What about our characters? I haven’t forgotten about them, these concepts work in our writing also, not just as a meta-process. The lack of similarity or feeling of being dissimilar may prevent a character from feeling like they belong, and may be the precursor to a journey to seek out people who are similar to oneself. This is a frequent theme of coming of age novels, the feeling that no one shares a similar experience and wanting to find someone who understands the character at a deeper level. This person who connects with them can either be inserted into the characters physical space, such as a new kid at school or the character being the new kid, or the character going on a journey and finding companions on the road. While these companions may have different goals, grow together because of the journey and often times end up reconciling their goals or assisting one another. The other side is the character who exaggerates or overstates their similarities to others to belong, sometimes becoming untrue to themselves. This dissonance between the true self and the believed similarities to another or a cause is excellent grist for the mill, especially for a story about inner exploration.
Writing prompt: Identify a quintessential experience of your target audience and write a short story about a character that is in the moment of this experience (I’d recommend looking at Erikson’s stages of development for a good basic starting point)