Making It Personal: How Personality Affects Identification and Enjoyment of Heroes and Villains

Student researcher

Meghan Sanders
This paper is based on the author's Master's thesis.

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar

For a complete report of this research, see:

Sanders, M. (2003, July). Making it personal: How personality affects identification and enjoyment of heroes and villains. Paper presented at the Entertainment Interest Group at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Kansas City, MO.


Past research has suggested that personality determines how and why people respond emotionally to situations, media and messages as well as why people enjoy various forms of media (e.g. violent media, graphic horror, sexually graphic and explicit materials). In particular, personality has been found to determine how and why people respond emotionally to situations, media, and messages as well as why people enjoy various forms of media (e.g. violent media, graphic horror, sexually graphic and explicit materials). Furthermore, personality, has been found to be an important element, along with cognitive styles, beliefs, and values, in understanding the gratifications people receive from viewing, providing more information than what surveys focused on demographic data normally provide. The viewer-character relationship is a large part of media involvement. Understanding how people respond to characters increases understanding of responses to entertainment. Further, personal attributes of the viewer have a role in perception formations of characters.

Research Questions

The current study addressed the following research questions:

RQ1: What is the relationship between viewer personality (Extroversion, Conscientiousness, Openness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and character valence (hero, villain, or ambiguous), independently and collectively, on enjoyment?

RQ2: What is the relationship between viewer personality and character valence, independently and collectively, on identification?

RQ3: Is enjoyment related to identification with media characters?


A total of 88 participants took part in a within-subjects repeated measures experiment. They completed a personality questionnaire prior to the study session and were asked to respond to scales measuring their identification with and enjoyment of three types of characters (referred to in the results as valence): heroes, villains, and ambiguous characters. Participants provided ratings for each character. Each condition consisted of three versions featuring three different actors and storylines such that the same character and actor portrayed all three character valences. For example, a participant in one session saw Michael Keaton portray a hero, Aidan Quinn portray an ambiguously-valenced character, and David Duchovny portray a villain. In a different session, a participant saw Aidan Quinn as the hero, Michael Keaton as the villain, and David Duchovny as the ambiguously-valenced character. The stimulus consisted of three phases to establish a stronger manipulation: a movie synopsis (one paragraph), a clip of a movie (2 minutes - 2 1/2 minutes), and an excerpt from a screenplay (4-5 pages). Thirty-five (35) participants were recruited to participate in a pre-test of the stimulus material. The results showed that characters manipulated to be heroes, villains and ambiguous characters were perceived as being such.


RQ1: The results of this study showed that the valence of the media character and the personality dimensions independently did not affect how the character was enjoyed. Together, character valence and personality were shown to affect enjoyment along the dimension of Neuroticism. As participants' levels of Neuroticism increased so did their enjoyment of ambiguous characters. However their enjoyment of heroes and villains decreased.

RQ2: According to these results, character valence did affect how people identified with media characters. Heroes were identified with more than were ambiguous and villainous characters. Villains were identified with the least. The results also showed personality to be a factor in ratings of identification. In particular, the more Extroverted the person the higher the identification levels, but the more Conscientious the person, the lower the identification levels. There was one interaction between levels of Openness and character valence. As Openness increased, levels of identification with ambiguous and heroic characters decreased to varying degrees. Conversely, as Openness increased, identification levels with villains increased.

RQ3: Enjoyment was found to be positively related to identification overall. As enjoyment increased, so did identification.


Personality is made up of psychological components that point to behaviors and patterns. It is possible that the dimensions studied did not strongly predict enjoyment because enjoyment is a judgment made concerning the value of the entertainment. Personality instead seems better suited for predicting identification because the concept is a preconscious or subconscious level of processing. The fact that enjoyment was positively correlated to identification is of benefit to screenwriters and television and film producers. If they are looking for a character that people enjoy, then it may be a good idea to create a character which people can identify with. However, it cannot be said from this study what precedes which, an area which merits further research and explanation.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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Media Effects Research Lab at College of Communications, Penn State University