Why we think fictional characters are real – Because it is fun

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. Needless to say, the subject has been analyzed to hell and gone and is seriously complicated. Here goes reason #3.

Reason #3: It’s fun!

I actually enjoy letting go of my logic or beliefs once in a while and allowing myself to be transported into another world. That’s the fun of reading, isn’t it? It is relaxing to read about another world and another set of people without having to think about whether it’s right or makes sense. Being logical and rational and coolly analytical is not entirely human, to paraphrase a famous fictional character “Starfleet Officer Spock”. It’s work, actually.

Choice and pleasure

Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming, with Roger Moore on the cover.

Some literary analysts have made a point that people believe in fictional characters simply because they can, because they want to and because it’s enjoyable. John Gardner, the author of the “James Bond” sequels after the death of Ian Fleming, described this dream-like process as follows:

“The idea that the writer’s only material is words is true only in a trivial sense. Words conjure emotionally charged images in the reader’s mind, and when the words are put together in the proper way, with the proper rhythms—long and short sounds, smooth or ragged, tranquil or rambunctious—we have the queer experience of falling through the print on the page into something like a dream, an imaginary world so real and convincing that when we happen to be jerked out of it by a call from the kitchen or a knock at the door, we stare for an instant in befuddlement at the familiar room where we sat down, half an hour ago, with our book.

To say that we shouldn’t react to fictional characters as “real people” is exactly equivalent to saying that we shouldn’t be frightened by the things we meet in nightmares.” (John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, New York, Basic Books, 1978, pp. 112-13)

Moral fiction

(2010) John Gardner established himself by writing spin-offs of another more famous literary character, James Bond. It takes a special skill to avoid odious comparisons to the original author and Gardner does not always distinguish himself. In “Moriarty”, he starts the novel by an attempt at authentication, describing the unearthing of the original journals of Prof. Moriarty, in a style reminiscent of the announcement of the “Hitler Diaries” in 1983. The problem is of course, that Moriarty was a fictional character of Arthur Conan Doyle – Hitler was not. And from there onwards everything goes downhill, with the reader needing super-human levels of suspension of disbelief. Many of his books were send-ups of traditional spy novels, and perhaps this one was too.
Moriarty, by John Gardner

Gardner goes on to argue that, because of this reaction, fiction needs to be moral, needs to be “good” and the author has a responsibility to put in ideas that support justice and condemn evil, and remain historically accurate. It is interesting that in one of his books, Moriarity, he made a terrible mash-up of fiction and fact and fallacies, and it was painful to read. Gardner was more than a writer of commercially successful thrillers, he thought a great deal about the moral obligation of fiction authors and in his paper, On Moral Fiction, he makes a strong case for this. But Howard Sklar, in his 2009 paper Believable Fictions: On the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters, published by the University of Helsinki, Finland, states that;

“…I believe that Gardner’s most significant contribution, here, does not lie in his characterization of the actual content of readers’ experiences. After all, who is to say that, while we dream, our experience is “not real,” or that our emotions are based on a fiction? Rather, I would like to focus on his perceptive comparison between the emotional absorption that we feel in nightmares and the often absorptive power of fictional narratives, which can activate readers’ imaginative capacities in dynamic ways.”

What Sklar and Gardner agree on is that reading is emotionally absorbing and, most of the time, people return time and again to that emotional, and enjoyable, stimuli.

Another counter-argument to the requirement for moral fiction due to the realism of imagination, goes that authors are authors, not do-gooders or samaritans. When fiction authors become moralistic, then the result is a sermon, or a moral fable, or something saccharine. This was the case with the publication of The Return of the Young Prince, by A.G. Roemmers, which was simply a catechism, and quite unreadable in my opinion. Overly moral fiction is just not fun.

Morality in fiction

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, published posthumously.

It takes a talented author to put the moral quandary before the reader, and expect them to figure out what is right by themselves. Take for instance Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman. Unlike the righteous hero winning his case in To Kill a mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is ambiguous, and “Atticus Finch” is portrayed as a man who confuses his daughter by allowing a bigot to express his opinion. The subtle message is that freedom of speech means freedom for all, even if one disagrees with what another person says.

The real world is an ambiguous place, shades of grey rather than black and white, and fiction reflects this. Rather than engage with the moral argument, readers may choose to simply enjoy the characters and the process of reading, and in doing so, associate the characters with pleasure and enjoyment, and a sense of fulfilment, because they can. As a result, they identify with the characters and over time, can come to think of them as real.

I actually enjoy letting go of my logic or beliefs once in a while and allowing myself to be transported into another world, moral quandaries and all. That’s the fun of reading, isn’t it?

Next reason: Good writing and imagery

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