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Reindeer, Brian Griffin, a Pencil Named Steve, and the Psychology of Storytelling

One day I was in a grocery store here in Southern California, and I saw a display of some Christmas
decorations -- two reindeer who were being sold at a deep discount because their antlers had broken off.

I felt sad for them. I did not cry, and I did not feel badly enough for them to buy them. But my sadness, however fleeting, was spontaneous and genuine.

I quickly asked myself if I would have felt the same sadness if the ornaments did not have eyes and mouths, if they had not represented living creatures. Suppose they had been Christmas coffee mugs with broken handles. Would I have felt sad?

Nope.

One of the truly strange things about human beings is our ability to form emotional attachments to so many different things -- other humans, animals, even objects that resemble humans and animals. Perhaps most strange is our ability to form strong emotional attachments to things that do not even exist.

Brian Griffin for example.

He is a dog, who acts like a human, and who does not exist.

Brian's non-existence did not stop many viewers of Family Guy from getting very upset when that show recently killed him, the family dog who had been on the show from the beginning. He was run over by a car, and the family quickly replaced him with another talking dog. This one was named Vinny and he sounded like a cast member from The Jersey Shore.

Social media was quickly abuzz with surprise from all and anger from some at this narrative turn.

Someone posted a picture of the tattoo that memorialized Brian. Soon there were petitions calling for the show's creators to resurrect Brian.

And they did. Though it was done so quickly that his death clearly was never intended to be permanent. His best friend Stewie has a time machine, after all, so changing Brian's fate was easily within the show's realm of possibility. The story of bringing him back most likely was being animated at the same time as the story of his death. (I have not heard what the Brian-tattoo dude plans to do now.)

The outcry reminded me of the famous death of Little Nell, a frail little girl from the Charles Dickens novel The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens serialized that novel in a magazine in 1840-1841, and his audience could see her death approaching (unlike Seth McFarlane's audience). Readers begged him to spare Little Nell, and many were heartbroken when she finally died. William Macready, a famous actor of the time, wrote in his diary: "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain."

One of the many powers of storytelling is its ability to tell us false things and evoke true emotions. Although the deaths of Brian Griffin and Little Nell were unreal (as were their lives), the audience reactions were very real.

Storytelling depends upon the very human and psychological process of identification. When someone says,"I could identify with that character," we usually take that to mean "I could see aspects of myself or my experiences in that character's personality or experiences." But identification is more complicated than that.

Identification can also be called a type of introjection, which is the process by which someone absorbs into their psyche, behavior, or beliefs some aspect of the outside world. That is, a character on the big screen or the small page may experience a great deal of fear, and then members of the audience feel something very similar -- even though they are under no threat. Similarly, they might feel anger, even though nothing bad has happened to them; but something bad has happened to the character in a story, and the audience absorbs those sensations into themselves, even if only temporarily.

But this process also involves an element of projection, which is the psychological process by which a person believes his/her own emotions or ideas are possessed by another person. This can be positive or negative. A person could reject his own feelings of guilt and project them onto another person, assuming the other person is behaving in a guilty manner when he is not. Conversely, a person could feel happy and assume the people around him are happy too, even though they are not.

In the example of representations of living things, this is a strange, mirror-like dynamic. In the grocery store I saw the broken reindeer, and since they resembled living animals that I would feel sympathy for, I was able to project onto them what I would have felt in that situation -- sadness or vulnerability, as if they were those lonely inhabitants of The Island of Misfit Toys on the Christmas TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having projected those human experiences onto non-human objects, I then identified with that sadness and vulnerability.

When I talk to my classes about the powers of storytelling and its dependence upon this human obsession with relating the world back to ourselves, I illustrate it with a great example: Jeff Winger's "Steve the pencil" speech in the pilot episode of Community (watch the speech here).

Winger tells his friends that "people can connect with anything." To illustrate this point, he says, "... I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve and go like this [breaking pencil] -- and part of you dies just a little bit on the inside."

So true, Jeff. This type of gullibility -- this desire to be told lies in order to experience real emotions - makes humans different from other creatures and gives storytelling its greatest power.