Why Do We Like What We Like?

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Why Do We Like What We Like?

Post by Lemminkainen on Thu Oct 16, 2014 2:45 am

So, a lot of geek culture is defined by liking particular pieces of entertainment. In social settings, we spend a lot of time squeeing about things that we're into together, aggressively defending things we like from people who hate them, making and sharing derivative works, and analyzing things in depth.

I do think, though, that we're frequently very un-self-reflexive about what drives our tendency to like stuff, which I think is a lot of the reason why a lot of us get really angry and defensive when people criticize or even just say that they don't like things that we like. And often, even when we are reflexive, we focus on relatively meaningless superficial details rather than deep structural things.

So, I'm offering a bit of a challenge: take some medium or genre, pick out your favorite works within it, look for recurring patterns and themes, and then try to understand what drives your preferences.

I'll start with a very nerdy medium: anime.

My favorites: Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Code Geass, Kill La Kill, Psycho-Pass

Honorable Mentions: Death Note (the first season only), Sword Art Online (Only the Aincrad arc-- after it finishes, I feel that the show goes to shit very, very fast), Attack on Titan

So, I'll try to pull out some commonalities:

1: Thematic density. Most of these shows try to talk about complicated social, moral, or philosophical issues. Most of them also don't offer any sort of easy or comfortable resolution to them either. In some of them, like Madoka, Evangelion, and Psycho-Pass, dealing with these issues is very clearly the main point of the show.

2: Plots characterized by complexity and/or major twists. Everything on the list except SAO has one or both of these.

3: Key characters who are highly intelligent and deceptive who form really complicated plot-driving plans which we only come to understand as they unfold. Homura, Gendo, Lelouch, Satsuki, Makishima, and Light all fit this profile.

4: Genre deconstruction and/or parody

5: High-stakes tension. These anime are all action or suspense-heavy, and all of them frequently put characters in very credible danger of suffering and death.

6: Visual kinetic-ness. All of these shows feature lots and lots of motion-- people move rapidly through space, weapons are fired, things explode. Even Death Note, which is about a guy who kills people while sitting at his desk writing names in a notebook, has this, with police chases, fights between characters handcuffed together, and people sent flying by Light's pen during the most dramatic montage of a person writing other people's names ever. Evangelion is often quite still, but it's punctuated by very kinetic moments.

7: Overpowering sensory stuff: Complex, strange, often-brightly-colored visuals, and rick soundtracks combine with the kinetic stuff I talked about above to make most of these works very stimulating. Of course, Kill La Kill is head and shoulders above everything else here.

8: Intense dramatization of emotions. All of these shows are very concerned with their characters' feelings, and all of them are also deeply interested in communicating them to us in the audience. A lot of them deal with this by making characters very expressive and obviously emotive people, and all of them show even stoic and quiet characters breaking facade and being really expressive in dramatic moments.

9: Doing strange things with time so that we can explore people's feelings more closely. Most of these shows tend to slow down or stop time even in action-heavy moments to show us what characters are thinking or feeling. Attack on Titan is probably the most blatant example here.

10: Emotionally intense, sometimes very complicated relationships between major characters. All of these works do this well, but I would say that SAO does it particularly interestingly, since it's one of the few anime which I know about that spends a lot of time focusing on a couple who are happily married (albeit in a virtual-reality video game where they've been trapped for a few years) and using our feelings about that relationship to create drama.

11: Homoerotic subtext: Homura/Madoka, Shinji/Kaworu, Lelouch/Suzaku, Ryuko/Mako, Kogami/Makishima, and Lelouch/Light are all very plausible ships.

Looking over this list, I feel like my preferences are heavily driven by the way that I tend to engage with works in three ways at once. First, I'm an intellectual, and the way that I watch things tends to be very cerebral. I enjoy thinking about and analyzing works and then discussing my thoughts and analyses with friends. Elements 1, 2, 4, and 3 (which tends to make 2 happen) give my thinky-brain a lot of juicy stuff to work with, and tend to make for fun discussions later. Second, I seem to have a very powerful lizard-brain which likes it when adrenaline spikes and sensory overload happen. Points five, six, and seven are about that. Third, I tend to love a work much more when I can invest in its characters. The more access I have to a character's psyche, and the more links that they have to other characters, the more I tend to care about them. Since I had some kind of nonverbal learning disability when I was younger, I used to need these things to be dramatized for me fairly straightforwardly, and because of that, I'm very unjaded about intense expressions of emotion unless they seem character-incongruent, so they still heighten the experience for me rather than ruin it. 8, 9, and 10 play into this-- as does 11, since romantic love is pretty easy for me to invest in narratively.

Something which checks out well here: this fits nicely with a lot of other media preferences. For example, my favorite movies, from Steve McQueen's filmography (I'm talking about the 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, not The Great Escape star Steve McQueen) to Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill to Zhang Yimou's Wuxia films (particularly House of Flying Daggers) to X-Men First Class and the Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films meet most or all of these criteria.

So, thoughts? And how about you guys?

Lemminkainen

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Re: Why Do We Like What We Like?

Post by nearly_takuan on Thu Oct 16, 2014 7:29 am

Because it's now been several months since I read a novel I really really liked, and I don't often consume anime or manga, I guess I'll start by analyzing my preferences when it comes to live-action television.

Favorites: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Continuum, Heroes, The X-Files, Star Trek: TNG, The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Almost-favorites: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel (yes, all of both), Alphas, Arrow, Psych, Numb3rs, Dollhouse.

I used to like Sliders when I was a kid; now that it's on Netflix I've decided it was "okay" in the first season but is practically unwatchable after that. Still, I can mostly see why I would have liked it. Also, I got the impression from bits I saw that I would probably like Murdoch Mysteries, White Collar, and Bones, but that all happened at around the same time I started embargoing anything I wasn't already familiar with for fear that a red string would sneak in and drive me bonkers.

—Anyway. Common things:

1. Most of these (mystery shows being the exception) have a large ensemble cast of protagonists, with no single character having a strong claim to being the "main" character.

2. Some of these (though Whedon and Sorkin generally suck at this) feature a reasonably diverse cast among the important protagonists.

3. Political leanings, not always explicit but generally favoring a moderate-liberal worldview. (I consider myself more liberal than that.)

4. Snarky humor.

5. I generally finish an episode feeling like the writers did at least spend five minutes on Wikipedia looking up the basic facts of whatever science/math/history thing they used to further the plot. (Alphas began to utterly fail at this early into its second season.)

6. References to real history or conspiracy theories (see 5) and in-universe continuity/nostalgia. Most of these shows have a little of each.

7. One or more "good" characters has a long-term plan that may involve deceiving other characters, and this conflicts not only with the villains' plans but also other "good" characters.

8. Somewhat related to 7, some characters' motivations are laid bare from the outset while others are kept mysterious—generally in such a way that the audience has the option to speculate and try to get inside those characters' minds.

9. Variety in modes of storytelling. Although the majority of episodes in a given show will follow the same basic storytelling styles, almost all of these shows have had at least one episode experiment with the meta/storytelling format: X-Files would occasionally have episodes where Mulder and Scully took turns narrating the plot, with silly details thrown in to exaggerate their respective biases; S.H.I.E.L.D. had that train episode, where four different scenes showed four different characters' perspectives on the same point in time (synchronized and cued by the steward's voice); Continuum has had a single episode so far where the main plot was set in the future and a few scenes from the present popped up where "flashbacks" would normally go; Studio 60 and The West Wing had episodes where due to a character's disjointed narration of events we saw things happening out of order—but arguably in the order that mattered to that character.

10. Although romantic subplots can at times feature heavily (as they do everywhere), there is generally as much or more emphasis on platonic friendships, and general teamwork-stuff. Sometimes (as in Sorkin's shows) this is an unfortunate consequence of all the most important characters being straight white men (and therefore there is no romantic potential or sexual tension between primary protagonists), but, well, this is probably at least part of the reason The Newsroom isn't on my list despite generally seeming (marginally) kinder to women than Sorkin's earlier work.

I mean, this does fit pretty well with what I would expect of myself, and I wonder how much "what I see myself as" informs my tastes, as opposed to "what I really am".

(1, 2) I think part of my preference for ensemble-cast stories comes from wanting to directly relate to a character or two; the typical primary protagonists in a two-character story arc tend to be rather unlike myself (ambitious, extroverted, quick-witted, confident). I mean, they always have some kind of flaws or baggage or something for the sake of ongoing character development, but they aren't the kinds of flaws I really relate to, if that makes sense. Just not enough intersecting traits. I liked the premise of Warehouse 13 and it mostly feels like it should be my kind of show—from synopses, it certainly seems like it has 4-8 covered—but I had a lot of difficulty engaging with the story for the first several episodes and never really made it past that point, because despite various implications being made about the three main characters' sordid pasts, I didn't see anything in their present personalities that would let me put myself directly in their shoes—so to speak. Whereas I could see a lot of myself in Fitz, Carlos, Betty, Hiro, Mohinder, Toby, Charlie, Danny, Willow, Rachel, and Charlie. (Note that I only have coherent explanations for some of those characters; I'm not sure why others resonated like they did.) Anyway, more characters = better chances I'll find at least one character who feels "like me" in some way. Is that vain? Razz

(3, 4, 5, 6) I just really like history, science, trivia, "smart" things. Things that tickle those parts of my brain and/or allow me to discuss them with other people of the same mind are always a big bonus.

(7, 8, 9) Subjectivity fascinates me. "Psychology" isn't quite the right word for this; I don't really want to study a character and map out all his personality traits, but (possibly again because of how often it ties back to Real Life) seeing partial tragedies unfold and resolve as consequences of well-intentioned and not-so-well-intentioned people acting on limited information is just always kind of cool.

(10) It's too ubiquitous to reasonably keep as a deal-breaker, but whenever the first- and second-most important characters end up in a romance, it tends to take time and steam away from the rest of the plot and there's a whole bunch of mushy stuff I'd rather not see. It's actually better if there's an element of sadness/futility in the mix: May's feelings for Coulson, Fitz's for Simmons, Willow's for Xander, Xander's for Willow, everyone's for Cordelia or whoever the hell she is.... But I definitely found the first season and a half of Continuum particularly refreshing because, aside from flashbacks to Kiera's life that have more to do with her son than her husband, and occasional flirtations between Sonya and Travis, there was no 'shipping going on and no real sexual tension driving the plot. And when they did start introducing love interests, they still didn't immediately promote those characters to center-stage protagonists. Sure, Emily's role as a plot gimmick is slightly problematic, but again, larger social justice implications just don't have as much of an influence on the entertainment value I personally derive than my ability to comfortably view the content in the first place. Seeing more of Alec/Emily, or developing a Kiera/Carlos 'ship, or sending the Kiera/Kellogg sexual tension further than it already went would probably have produced some very different scripts and made me ill.

One of my favorite novels, Elantris, happens to have a lot of these traits, too, though it's missing others. Two of the three main/viewpoint characters, Sarene and Raoden, have an arranged marriage and just happen to be perfect for each other, so #10 is out, but there is a large supporting cast and each character feels fleshed out. A lot of the main plot is driven by the fact that none of the main characters are (to varying degrees and for various reasons) unable to directly collaborate or share information with each other, so although all three viewpoint characters are intelligently scheming and plotting toward similar goals, they constantly interfere with and frustrate each other. There's a political interaction and a three-way chess game that is very entertaining to read through multiple times from multiple angles. Characters like Sarene and Galladon are sarcastic and witty, while Raoden is mostly serious but scholarly and eccentric and shares my interests in history and engineering.

Most of the novels I've enjoyed somewhat recently (still several months back, though, as stated) at least somewhat fit this pattern, too: Good Omens (Pratchett), Vicious (Schwab), and Three Princes (Wheeler) stand out. And, well, I consider So You Want To Be A Wizard one of the paragons of YA Fantasy, and aside from the political angle it's got all these traits as well.
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