In a story, circumstances tend to take precedence over other influences in how a writer imagines a protagonist. In psychology there is a principle that helps to explain this effect. It was proposed by Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett (1971), and it's called the actor-observer bias. The bias is that we tend to experience our own reasons and other people's reasons for doing anything in rather different ways. Imagine I am a student and I work hard for weeks studying for an exam. I am the actor here, and as such I might experience myself as studying hard because I know the exam will be difficult and I know the result will be important for my future plans. If I were to see another student working hard for weeks studying for an exam, I would be the observer. I would tend to say this student was working hard because he or she was conscientious or ambitious. When we act, we tend to see ourselves as being responsive to circumstances, doing what is necessary to pursue a plan. When we observe others doing exactly the same thing, we tend to attribute their action to some persisting aspect of their personality. It’s rather like when one is driving and has to brake suddenly to avoid hitting that careless person in front.
Writers tend to arrange stories so that the protagonist acts in a way that is responsive to circumstances, that is to say, in the way we experience ourselves in everyday life. As writers and as readers, then, we feel the kinds of emotions the character would feel as an actor in following a plan and responding to circumstances that result from it.
A recent study by Marisa Bortolussi, Peter Dixon, and Paul Sopčák (2010) was about the effects of gender on reading fiction in Canada and Germany, but the results are best explained in terms of actor-observer differences.
The influence of gender on reading is a perennial question because it’s invariably found that more women than men read literary fiction. In the most recent large US survey by the National Endowment for the Arts (2009), which had 18,000 respondents, it was found that 58% of women had read a play, poetry, short-story or novel during the previous year, as compared 42% of men.
Bortolussi et al. selected four passages, each of about 1000 words, from contemporary novels, two with male protagonists, and two with female protagonists. For each passage with a male protagonist, they wrote a version of the same passage with a female protagonist, and for each passage with a female protagonist, they wrote a version with a male protagonist. They prepared versions in English (for the Canadian readers) and in German (for the German readers). Previous research has tended to find that males tended to prefer male protagonists and females to prefer female protagonists. With their clever manipulation of assigning people to the same stories but with different-sexed protagonists, Bortolussi and her colleagues found both male and female readers—in Canada and Germany—preferred male protagonists. That is to say: both males and female readers agreed more strongly with an item that stated, "I feel I can understand and appreciate the main character and situation of he story," and one that stated, "I would like to continue reading to find out what happens next in the story," when the protagonist was male as compared with being female.
The researchers explain this effect in terms of the actor-observer bias. In general, say Bortolussi and her colleagues, men in Western societies tend to be seen as acting in response to circumstances ("he did what he had to") whereas women tend more often to be seen in terms of their personality ("she behaved emotionally"). Thus, for both men and women, our social stereotypes make it easier in stories to understand and to identify with a male protagonist, the kind of character who acts in response to the situation he is in, than with a female protagonist, the kind of character who acts because of her personality.
Marisa Bortolussi, Peter Dixon & Paul Sopčák (2010). Gender and reading. Poetics, 38, 299-318.
Edward Jones & Richard Nisbett (1971). The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. New York: General Learning Press.
National Endowment for the Arts. (2009). Reading on the rise: A new chapter in American literacy (No. 46). Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.