All right, readers! Welcome back after another weekend! It’s time for Being a Better Writer once more, and this week we’ve got an interesting topic that I’ve been muddling over in my mind for a while. So it’s a bit of an interesting one.
There will be a call at the end, too, so make sure you read down to there if you’re curious what that means, or know what that means and are brimming with ideas!
But really quick, before we get into today’s post, just a reminder: We’re only a day and a week out from Jungle! That’s right, folks, it drops next Tuesday! We’re eight days away! Eight days from finding out what comes next after Colony! Eight days from … well, that’d be spoiling things. But hey, we’re eight days out, and you can still pre-order your copy today so that when the moment arrives, you’re reading ASAP! You can just click that cover over there to go right to Amazon and reserve your copy, or you can click this link instead!
Seriously guys, you don’t want to miss this one. Colony scraped the surface of things. Jungle? It’s … Well, you don’t want to miss it. Take it from the Alpha and Beta readers who worked on it, or the lucky few who got advance copies to look at: Jungle is wild.
Look for at least one more preview here on the site (or in advance on Patreon for supporters) before the book launches next week, but get ready! If you liked the first one, this one will be right up your alley.
Okay, enough plugging. Just go pre-order a copy, and let’s talk about today’s topic: cathartic characters and wish fulfillment.
So this post actually started out in my head as an op-ed response to something I read online. A movie review, actually, that was savaging a series of movies the critic on the other side of the keyboard really didn’t like, understand, or agree with.
I say “didn’t understand” because it was pretty clear that a significant part of the appeal of these films was flying right over their head. The films in question? Illumination’s Despicable Me. The bit they took issue with? The fact that people liked the protagonist of the three films, Gru, despite his behavior being, well … that of a minor villain.
To sum up the gist of a much larger review, they took issue with the fact that the character’s behavior was so minor compared to, say, James Bond level supervillains (despite Gru being a “supervillain” in his story), and yet that people seemed amused by the “small” acts of villainy Gru did carry out.
If you’re not familiar with Gru or the Despicable Me films, by the way, then I’m just going to link the intro to the first one here so you can give it a watch.
Or at least the first few minutes of it, which is more than enough to get the idea across. See, this reviewer didn’t get why people enjoyed seeing this kind of ‘minor, anti-social villainy,’ why people were enthralled by such actions, or then would watch a movie about the character.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure how the reviewer didn’t get it. Maybe they were a Bond-level supervillain themselves and felt threatened by a “minor” villain who committed casual “evil” (not really that evil, to be honest) being popular. Because in all honesty? The appeal of Gru is immediately obvious to most people, even if they don’t realize why.
Because we’ve all wanted to do that. Maybe not the exact things Gru is doing (like giving the kid a balloon animal only to pop it just to quiet them out of sheer shock), but that kind of behavior. Freezing everyone else in a long line because we don’t want to wait for our order? Who hasn’t had a day where they’ve wished for something similar?
We as viewers tend to like Gru’s behavior not because it’s “low-level villainy” but because we relate to it. We’ve all wanted to be Gru, on some level. We’ve wanted to be the ones in the largest vehicle that forces others out of our way in traffic, or the one that can just bluntly and with a smile tell a neighbor to stop letting their dog poop on our lawn or else.
This applies for other, similar films that Illumination has made, by the way (the writers of Despicable Me really do seem to like this kind of protagonist). Take The Grinch as another example, a retelling by Illumination of the famous How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Illumination’s take on the story I actually enjoyed quite a bit, and again, there’s elements of this sort of “audiences can relate with that” with the protagonist of the Grinch, who in their version doesn’t like Christmas because he’s an anti-social shut in who hates having “artificial happiness” shoved down his throat, and reacts by pushing everyone away in jerk manners (in one of my favorite scenes, he sees an old woman struggling to reach the only jar of something on a shelf, walks over and grabs it, and when asked by her if he plans to by it, slowly replies “No …” while sticking it back one shelf further up).
Point being, Illumination likes making films about these kinds of characters. These characters that are just “social meanies,” who defy the conventions or the norms and do what sometimes the audience really wishes they could do, but doesn’t.
In other words, people like these characters because they find them cathartic.
Okay, I used that word in both the title, and I’ve brought it up here now in the text. What does it mean. And what does all of this have to do with our writing?
Well, we can go textbook for the definition of “cathartic.” Simply put, cathartic means “providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions.” Basically, the release of emotions that we’ve kept contained inside ourselves.
Or, to put it in more readable terms, so many people like characters like Gru because they enjoy laughing at his getting away with what they want to do! Because they’ve wanted to do it! Like the freeze-ray-coffee-line scene. Most people have wanted to do something like that, have thought about doing something like that, but hold back because, well, it’s not polite and most of us don’t own freeze-rays. But we want to do it. And that want piles up inside of us.
But then we see this character do it, we see them do what we want to do. And we identify with them, and, in a way, we let ourselves “become” them. We relate to them. We put ourselves in their shoes. So that when we laugh, we’re letting out all that pent-up wishful thinking that we could do that.
We live vicariously through their actions, and in doing so, let off a little pent-up emotion.
That is what the critic I mentioned at the start of this post missed. That people like Gru because in a way, they relate to him, and because of that relation, they find it relieving and enjoyable to watch him get away with the things they would never do, but have thought about doing. Because it’s satisfying, even though it’s fantasy.
There’s another facet to this as well, though. They aren’t the only ones. When a group of people experience the film and laugh together at Gru’s antics, not only is each one of them letting out those emotions and experiencing a catharsis, but they’re also reinforcing their social connection with those around them. They laugh at what’s going on, but they also hear everyone around them laughing, which says “Hey, they get it too. You all feel this way! You all feel this pressure and, on some level, have wished for this!” Which in turn brings a sense of satisfaction as you realize you’re not the only one. You’re all on the same page.
Okay, so that answers the question of why Illumination’s films and characters resonate with people, something that flew past that critic. But let’s take it one step further: What does this mean for your writing? What can it mean? What can we learn from it?
Well, there’s a really big lesson here we can take out of it: People like catharsis. And reading? It’s a form of catharsis. Even in ways that some may not expect. And that? It draws people in.
See, before on this site we’ve talked about characters that readers can identify with. Characters that feel real, but also feel familiar to a reader. Well, a lot of the reason that familiarity is powerful is because it can bring about this sense of catharsis for a reader. A character experiences something sad, or something scary, and the reader empathizes with that experience alongside them.
Then, when our character recovers from said emotion or experience, the audience feels a sense of relief and release as well, And just as how with the character Gru doing something that the audience has wanted to do allows them to feel a sense of relief through his actions, so it is with the emotions and experiences of our character.
“Now wait,” I can hear some of you asking. “Sure, that makes sense for something like cutting in line. But being sad? Or almost dying? People want that?
Well … yes! They do! We like to read a story where we relate with a character being sad to the degree that we feel sad ourselves, because that lets us vent our sadness a little. We feel peril, or terror, or excitement, and that lets us release those emotions in a safe, enjoyable manner. People like horror novels because they enjoy feeling scared, and they also enjoy feeling that catharsis of letting that fear out in a safe, controlled manner (the alternative, I guess, being either bottling them or finding one’s self actually hunted by a serial killer in a mask).
So then … what does this mean for our writing? How does this tie back to us sitting down to write a book for our readers?
Well, it comes back to crafting realistic, relatable characters that our audience can identify with. If they relate to them, if they identify with them, and we’ve shown their emotions and experiences in a way that our audience relates to, then they’ll experience catharsis while reading our work.
And people like catharsis. It’s a good thing. Which in turn means they’ll like your work more.
Or, to put it another way, if our audience experiences a form of catharsis while reading our work, then they’re going to feel that much better about it when it’s over. Ergo, they’ll be a more satisfied audience! We’ve given them more than just a story, we’ve given them some emotional release.
Now, all this said … I’m not advocating for melodrama here. Use the search bar on the side of the site if you want some posts on that topic. I’m not saying we need to cram emotion into our story in order to associate with our audience. You don’t need to force it.
Rather, make your characters real and let their emotion shine through. Focus on giving them depth and, well, character. Then as they act, as they engage, and as they feel, your audience will get to experience those actions and feelings as well.
Catharsis isn’t an end-all. It’s not some juggernaut that’s going to change everything about your stories. But it is a facet of our stories that we should be aware of. Giving our characters enough depth to them, or making sure they experience events that put them in a situation that leads to it, can be rewarding for your readers.
In addition, it may be something that appeals to certain audiences and maybe help us narrow down who our readers are for a work. If readers keep telling you that they “associated” with a character in a story, learn why. Was there an element of catharsis there? Was is shared across that audience? Would it be worth pointing out to other prospective readers who have the same interests?
Ultimately, the point of today’s post isn’t to say “This is a catharsis and you must have it in your story or your story sucks” but rather to draw your attention to what catharsis is and why people enjoy it, and then in turn to get you thinking about possible moments of catharsis in your own work. Because if you don’t see them or recognize them, you can be left as baffled as that critic not understanding what so many saw in Gru’s acts of mild devilry. Which, especially when it comes to your own writing and work, is definitely something you don’t want to be in the dark about.
But properly acknowledged, catharsis with your audience can be a useful, and appreciated tool. So next time you’re working on your story, well … keep it in mind, okay?
Good luck. Now get writing.
Now, I promised there would be “a call” at the end, more than just the usual request to support the site via Patreon or purchasing a book (but seriously, please do that, it keeps things rolling!). So here goes!
What do you want to hear about in future Being a Better Writer articles? What topics do you want addressed, discussed, or dissected? What would you like to learn about? Read about? See brought up?
Hit those comments below, and let me know what you’d like to see covered in future posts!
3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Cathartic Characters and Wish Fulfillment”
Great post as usual. And I would like hearing what you think about entertainment value vs objective quality.
For clarification, are you referring to the idea of “this isn’t high literature but it’s still very entertaining” or the idea of “engagement over all else” that’s been cropping up in entertainment lately?
Very timely. I’m trying to find a way to morph my minor villains into redeemed characters in a short Christmas story (you can get away with that kind of thing in a Christmas story). You’ve given me some clues.