Why do we identify with fictional characters and think they are real – or want to believe they are real? There has to be a psychological or neurological basis for this. Here go reasons #1 & 2.
Reason #1: Belief systems
People’s confusion could come from their “belief” and “alief” systems getting mixed up by being very closely associated. Philosopher of Psychology Tamar Szabó Gendler of Yale University coined the term “alief”, as opposed to “belief”, back in 2008, to explain why people believe something that is contrary to what they logically know, and react accordingly. When people read fiction, two cognitive systems function: “belief”, where we know something is fiction or false, and can tell the difference, and “alief”, which is a more primitive mental state in which your “gut” says one thing and your brain says another, and your gut overrides your brain. That’s putting it too simply, but this “alief” will supposedly cause people who know they are engaging with fiction, to temporarily believe they are engaging with the real thing. “Alief” is a concept invented by Gendler, one of many possible explanations for this phenomenon. Some scientists believe it doesn’t have to do with the processing of the information, but rather the intention of accessing or engaging with the information in the first place.
Reason #2: Intention
One theory is that when a reader picks up a book that is fiction, they have a different mind-set, intention or expectation than if they were picking up a book that is non-fiction (and vice versa). When you expect fiction or fantasy, you expect the settings, the characters and the happenings not to be real. But historical fiction, biographies of historical figures, and memoirs, as well as the non-fiction novel (as written by Truman Capote), blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.
Distinction between fiction and non-fiction
The amount of historical accuracy or realism in a work of fiction often determines how “good” or enjoyable it is, in other words, how much creative freedom or poetical licence the writer used, and how well they used it. I have criticized authors of historical novels who kept too close to the received knowledge, as with Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, since it made for fairly dull reading if you knew the history. Not much “embroidery” or interpretation was added.
Sometimes authors knowingly take liberties with the historical facts, putting the novel into the category of Science Fiction, as with Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines, an “alternative history” novel.
If a reader does not know the facts of a certain setting or event, such as the history of slavery in America, they might not catch on that the America portrayed in Underground Airlines is imaginary, or a future world, a dystopia. I did, and, as a result, had to set my logic aside to read it. Afterwards, I had to weigh up the author’s version of America against the historical facts, and consider how well he had integrated or contrasted the one with the other.
Another option for blurring the lines between fact and fiction is that an author might use what we call an “unreliable narrator”, a character who conceals or greatly misrepresents vital pieces of information which are part of the story, or simply “speaks” the wrong facts, or defies conventions or the truth. That can be because they are a braggard, a clown, naive, a liar or crazy.
A crazy narrator, like the psychopath first person narrator “Patrick Bateman” in American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, describes a world which is twisted and deranged. The climax of the novel is when Patrick is confronted with the reality of someone else, who dismisses his claims to have murdered a colleague since he had had dinner with him not long before. Patrick further descends into madness when the scene of one of his murder sprees turns out to be an apartment being renovated. The reader is driven to wonder, what is the reality? What is the truth?, considering that Patrick is obviously nuts. Are the Wall Street money men with their suits and engraved business cards real, or another figment of his psychosis? Regardless, reading the novel does indeed feel like one is in a dream-state, a very unpleasant nightmare in fact. It might not be moral fiction, but is it extremely engrossing and enjoyable in the same way we enjoy horror movies.
Personally, I try always to remember that it is FICTION I am reading, not non-fiction. I always put a character’s name in quotation marks when I use it for the first time, before I discuss “their” actions in the present perfect tense. “They” should strictly be referred to as “the construct created by the author” but that is laborious.