Becoming Our Favourite Characters

Does Fiction Influence Reality?

Author/Editor: Jennifer J. Lacelle
Aug 10, 2021

The wind whistled between the trees, echoing nature’s voice as Abigayle made her way over the rugged surface of the earth and out of the thick forest. She shuddered as sharp winter air swept across the field and through her thin jacket. Muttering to herself, breath hanging like fog, she cursed the impending season and the snowy carnage it was about to set upon her.

Abigayle’s eyes tilted upward as a lone wolf pup wobbled toward her, ears fallen back and tail dragging limply behind him. His cry, small but drawn, seeped into the chilly air as if begging her to save him.

She paused, unsure what to do, as her heart fell for the pitiful creature. She couldn’t even save herself.

Stop for a moment to consider how that small story, albeit incomplete, made you feel.

The Brains of the Operation

If you could relate to Abigayle’s plight in the cold or felt pity for the dire situation of a helpless animal, you might be pretty empathetic. A key detail in how fictional characters, and stories, can influence people in the real world.

First off, what is empathy?

It can be defined as an internal emotional reaction based on someone else’s emotional state. You understand and / or share another person’s feelings and emotions. It’s genuine, not faked — that would be closer to manipulation.

People are typically egocentric, that’s simply the way we’re designed, but the supramarginal gyrus wants to correct our self-centeredness automatically. When there’s a disruption to this section of the brain, people are more likely to lack empathy and project their own feelings onto other people.

Furthermore, researchers found it was easier for someone to empathize with another person if they both experienced the same sensations — usually lack of luxury or enduring something uncomfortable with both visual and tactile sensations.

Recent research suggests that people can develop their empathy and compassion to some degree. Supposedly, this can be achieved by placing oneself in uncomfortable situations regularly. Some such examples include physical activities, mindfulness meditation (specific to kindness), and volunteering.

Another area of the brain that’s strongly associated with empathy is the anterior insular cortex. When this section of the brain is compromised, it was discovered people couldn’t relate to others: in other words, they lacked empathy.

During research, Dr. Xiaosi Gu (PhD) worked with scientists from other countries to determine where empathy originates. Those selected for the study were to view coloured photographs demonstrating other people who were experiencing pain.

Of the candidates, three had brain tumours removed around the anterior insular cortex (leaving lesions); nine of the participants had lesions in other sections of the brain; and 14 had non-lesion brains (normal).

What they discovered was that those with the damage to the anterior insular cortex had the most trouble with empathizing.

Stories on the Brain

So, what in tarnation does this have to do with books?

Humans need to make sense of the world, of chaos, and by turning the world into narratives our brains are able to more easily clarify what’s happening around us.

Interestingly enough, it’s likely one the reasons stories are important to human evolution is that once upon a time it was a survival tactic. One particular study showed that if facts were presented as narratives they were more likely to be remembered by at least 22 per cent.

As it pertains to stories, authors permit their audiences into the lives and minds of the characters. This does two things:

  1. It allows the audience to affirm their beliefs,
  2. On the polar opposite, it challenges beliefs.

Apparently reading fiction about different cultures, religion, economical status, or outsiders increases empathy in the audience.

By example of this, even if we haven’t experienced the same situations as the fictional people we are able to engage in empathetic behaviour through clear writing that displays their emotional state.

It’s generally easier to relate to these characters over real people because in the non-fictional world, people are taught to hide their emotions and thoughts.

We have to gauge what another person is feeling based off our own experiences. In a story, it’s all presented to the audience in a more intimate way.

Experience-Taking

Have you ever read a book and felt absolutely empowered afterward?

The next level up from feeling empathy for characters we grow attached to is called experience-taking. It’s where we relate so strongly the fictional person that we take on their attributes, perhaps for a short time or sometimes long-term. Essentially, with E-T you are replacing the character with yourself. It’s important to note that experience-taking is done subconsciously. Don’t worry, it doesn’t happen on a regular basis. In order for experience-taking to occur the reader must deeply absorb themselves in the story, almost forgetting their own sense of self.

For example, audiences who read in front of a mirror expressed less empathy and experience-taking because they were continuously reminded of themselves in the reflection. Another interesting fact: stories in first-person left readers with an even higher level of characteristic borrowing.

There have already been several experiments on the subject as a whole — at least 500 people participated in the six main studies of reference — but researchers found a number of stunning results.

Can E-T lead to real-life changes?

Yes. In one of the experiments, those who read a story about voting days before an election felt more likely to vote.

If the characteristics of the protagonist are exhibited earlier in the narrative, and the readers share some commonalities (such as ethnicity, attending the same school, etc.), it is more likely E-T will occur.

When fewer commonalities are present, there is less E-T because the reader doesn’t have their own frame of reference. Remember how we gauge other people based off our experience? Same thing.

However, in two specific experiments, it appears that when the protagonist’s sexuality or ethnicity were introduced later on, and the reader was of the opposite inclination or different ethnicity, there was a higher score for experience-taking.

In the groups who learned of their differences to the character earlier, lower rates of experience-taking were reported. Interestingly though, they did report feeling less bias toward that ethnicity or orientation in real life.

Don’t be Confused

Experience-taking is not the same as mental illnesses, delusional misidentification syndromes, erotomania, or newly emerging terms such as fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia.

These are conditions where someone truly believes they, or someone else, is entirely different person from who they. They may believe they are fictional or historical characters.

Other phrases coming to light refer to people who are romantically, or sexually, attracted to fictional characters. These people often desire to be in a relationship with said character.

There’s a canyon-wide difference from empathizing with a character and falling in love with them.

So… How Do We Become Our Favourite Characters?

The long and short of it all is that people require empathy to relate to people. In order to relate to people, we have to compare our personal experiences to what they tell us of their lives.

It’s easier to do that in a book where it’s all explained to the reader. So, when people let go of reality and relate to the character in some fashion, they are capable of taking on their attributes in real life, influencing their world one breath at a time.

Everything people listen to, watch, or read is absorbed and influences them on a subconscious level. We assimilate and adapt to real people, so why not fiction?

Think of everything you’ve ever read. Which ones have prompted you to try something new or different? Perhaps it was martial arts, archery, standing up to a bully, walking, journaling… the list goes on.

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