Character Quizzes and Why We Take them

Raise your hand if you’ve never taken a character quiz from a movie!

The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.

For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.

Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.

As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.

Ever wondered what Disney hero you would be? Probably. But have you ever wondered what villain you would be?

What about Star Wars?

Marvel?

Lord of the Rings?

Narnia?

Harry Potter?

Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)

The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?

For a good laugh?

To pass the time in the waiting room?

Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?

Probably.

I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:

They invite us to interpret the story in terms of ourselves.

The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?

What I’ve just now explained is actually a central concept in rhetorical theory: the concept of identification.

As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.

So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.

Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”

I think our need to see ourselves in a story is a statement about how we engage, learn, and find enjoyment.

We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.

No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.

And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.

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