Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds

From The Guardian:

It’s a cliche to claim that a novel can change your life, but a recent study suggests almost a fifth of readers report that fiction seeps into their daily existence.

Researchers at Durham University conducted a survey of more than 1,500 readers, with about 400 providing detailed descriptions of their experiences with book. Nineteen per cent of those respondents said the voices of fictional characters stayed with them even when they weren’t reading, influencing the style and tone of their thoughts – or even speaking to them directly. For some participants it was as if a character “had started to narrate my world”, while others heard characters talking, or imagined them reacting to things going on in everyday life.

. . . .

According to one of the paper’s authors, the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the survey illustrates how readers of fiction are doing more than just processing words for meaning – they are actively recreating the worlds and characters being described.

“For many of us, this can involve experiencing the characters in a novel as people we can interact with,” Fernyhough said. “One in seven of our respondents, for example, said they heard the voices of fictional characters as clearly as if there was someone in the room with them.”

. . . .

“One respondent, for example, described ‘feeling enveloped’ by [Virginia Woolf’s] character Clarissa Dalloway – hearing her voice and imagining her response to particular situations, such as walking into a Starbucks. Sometimes the experience seemed to be triggered by entering a real-world setting similar to one in the novel; in other situations, it felt like seeing the world through a particular character’s eyes, and judging events as the character would.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

19 thoughts on “Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”

  1. Goodness! It sounds as though people who read these “book” things have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. We should keep these so-called “books” away from our impressionable youth!

  2. I can buy this. It doesn’t happen a lot for me, but on occasion I’ll read a book that is so well-written, the characters so familiar, that they’ll start to sound “real” in my head.

  3. The Harry Potter series turned my niece British. She stopped saying “Mom”. It’s “Mum” now. Named her dog Sirius, is a total Potterhead and loves most British SF.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There’s a large segment of American kids who wish they were British because of the books. Plus, well, all those kids who wish there really were witches and wizards and Hogwarts.

    Mark Twain was the major literary influence of my childhood, followed by James Thurber and Shirley Jackson (her two autobiographical works). Need I point out that I have been a smart$ss since about the age of eight? 🙂

    • Until the other day I’d forgotten that Jane Austen has that effect on me. I found the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice on Amazon’s Prime video and started reading the book again. When I woke up the next morning I realized everyone in my dreams had talked like Austen’s characters.

  4. …readers of fiction are doing more than just processing words for meaning – they are actively recreating the worlds and characters being described.

    ::wrinkles forehead::

    But, of course. Being immersed in the world, surrounded by the characters, is why I read.

      • Indeed.

        Enough people seem to put “reading more” on their list of New Year’s resolutions, as though it were a virtue or good for you (like going to the gym more often), that perhaps the researchers figured practical concerns were the reason most people who read do so. The tone of surprise makes me think the researchers themselves don’t read fiction for pleasure.

        • The thing that gets me is that to which I alluded in my satirical first post, above. So, so many moral panics have been spawned by moralists seeing something wrong with the immersive properties of various forms of entertainment. Dungeons and Dragons must be satanic! Grand Theft Auto is corrupting our youth!

          And yet, here’s a study that finds that same immersiveness to be true of plain-vanilla books. Where’s all the outrage?

          • The outrage would probably be reserved for specific genres rather than reading itself. Too many know enough people who read that they would know it’s insane to claim “reading is of the devil” and so on.

            But: Fantasy novels are bad; they teach children to believe in magic! Horror (and maybe mystery) novels are bad because they incite violence! Gratuitous, horrible violence at that! Romance novels are smutty! Westerns teach you to solve problems by violence!

            Okay, I’ll stop, I’ve used up my quota of exclamation points.

  5. A key tenet of psychology says that the mind can’t tell the difference between an experience which is real and one which is vividly imagined. To me (wearing my professional counsellor’s hat) this explains the popularity of cooking, homemaking and various other reality shows. Having watched a presenter make a coffee table, we dust off our hands and feel the same satisfaction as if we’d made one. Reading has ever been thus. I want to travel on the Enterprise. Books let me do that, and yes, I continue my adventures in the privacy of my thoughts after the book is done. As a writer I want to make readers forget they’re reading words and get caught up in the events as if experiencing them personally. To me that’s the best kind of fiction.

    • Not only do we feel the satisfaction – or the catharsis – but we also get to spend time behind someone else’s eyes, exploring another way of dealing with the world. And what more visceral way is there to get to learn how other people act, react, and are motivated?

      Granted, we don’t have a dog named Mouse, a skull named Bob, and a car that hates us (okay, I think I’ve had Dresden’s car) – but sometimes the temptation to do something easy and wrong instead of principled and hard brings up fictional memories of why it’s a bad idea, and why you want to stand up for the right thing all the time, and be like the people you respect and admire.

      Although when I find myself quoting theology from Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, I do a mental double-take, and end up falling down a rabbit hole of finding which philosopher she may have drawn that from.

  6. The interesting thing here is that, just as some writers “see” their worlds and “hear” their characters, some readers respond with similar sensory imagination.

    As always, this is very weird and intriguing to those of us who just make stuff up the hard way. One wonders if this is where pretend games, theater, and roleplaying come from, because obviously a pretend game would be a lot more fun and immersive if you don’t have to work at it with so much conscious effort. It also suggests that some of the more fanciful and twee child characters who constantly live in pretend games are actually supposed to be realistic.

    This is right up there with realizing that some people actually remember most of their dreams, and that muses for some people are not just a literary conceit.

    The world is very freaky.

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