What they really mean, or are asking, is how will the viewer/reader identify with the main character.
Why is this so commonly asked? Why does it seem like every producer and network exec all ask this very same question?
Because it is IMPORTANT.
In a novel, we get to hear the inner thoughts of every character (if the writer chooses to let us in on those thoughts). Identification in literature isn't as big of an issue as it is in film. In film, the main character is the viewer's ticket into the story. And ultimately into the thoughts of the writer.
When you can put yourself in the main character's shoes, the screenwriter and director have succeeded. However, there are two kinds of viewer identification.
- I feel for the character and would NEVER want to be put in the situation that main character is in.
- I want to be the main character.
Believe it or not, but GENRE actually plays a huge role in differentiating between the two. Almost every HORROR film plays off #1. Most FANTASY films play off #2. THRILLERS tend to play off #1.
But interesting things happen when you play with viewer identification within a given genre.
Let's take two examples. THE FUGITIVE and THE BOURNE IDENTITY.
Both are excellent films. In terms, of screenplay, direction, genre, and fulfillment of genre expectation they are pinnacles of the craft. Both are Thrillers. Structurally they are very similar. Both are "chase" films in which the main character is fleeing for their lives, trying to resolve the issue/problem that put them in this predicament in the first place. When the chase is over, so to is the movie.
But the identification is EXTREMELY different.
Richard Kimball is convicted of murdering his wife. When the bus transporting him to a maximum security facility crashes, Richard is given the chance to prove his innocence. This is the First Act of the film. From this point on Richard is constantly on the run.
It is easy to identify with Richard Kimball's plight. But no one would trade places with him.
THE BOURNE IDENTITY
Jason Bourne has lost his memory. He puts together a few clues, opens his safe deposit box, discovers his identity (or at least one of them). This alerts the powers that be to his presence, and from this point on Jason Bourne is continually on the run.
Again, it is easy to identify with Jason Bourne's plight. The difference is, I believe there are a lot of people that would like to be Jason Bourne.
The plight is the same.
The difference lies in the central premise of THE BOURNE IDENTITY. If I were to pitch the story to an exec or producer, all I'd have to say is, "It's The Fugitive, except instead of being a doctor, the guy was a hired assassin who has lost his memory."
The difference being that Jason Bourne is a trained assassin. And when he is chased, he kicks some serious ass. The stakes are innately higher because if Jason Bourne were put in Richard Kimball's situation, the movie would be 15 minutes long. This creates a much more iconic figure, which in turn makes it a much easier film to market. It also opens it up to a variety of ancillary markets. Hence, why most Blockbusters tend to be of the #2 variety.
Here's the kicker...
Viewer identification has nothing to do with REALISM. It has to do with understanding the situation of the main character, and rooting for him.
There is no right or wrong in the crafting of a story. THE FUGITIVE is excellent. I'd argue, better than THE BOURNE IDENTITY. But you won't see action figures of Richard Kimball. You could easily see action figures of Jason Bourne (or Mini-Coopers brought into popularity in the U.S.).
P.S. -- As far as GENRE EXPECTATION goes, Chase/Thrillers such as these two movies tend to also be Fish-Out-of-Water stories. Note, that THE TERMINATOR is a similar Chase/Thriller. Sarah Connor is most certianly out of her element in that story.
THE BOURNE IDENTITY does a terrific job of pretending to be a Fish-Out-of-Water story. It did this by erasing Jason Bourne's memory. Think about it... He really isn't a fish-out-of-water. He is always a kick-butt assassin, able to handle his own. He just doesn't know why he is able to do that, which gives the audience the illusion of a fish-out-of-water. Richard Kimball, a renowned doctor being placed into the realm of criminal is truly a fish-out-of-water.
In both instances, the story is about how the audience will react to it, and living up to the expectations of the genre. Not the actual nuts and bolts of the story itself.
My next post is going to be on WISH FULFILLMENT in films, which plays largely into #2 and why such movies are easier to market.