Believable Fictions: On the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters – Howard Sklar

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 5, 2009Emotions Issue


© 2009 Howard Sklar


Believable Fictions:

On the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters1


Howard Sklar


University of Helsinki



In this essay, I address the long-standing debate within aesthetic philosophy on the nature of readers’ emotional responses to fictional characters.  After reviewing some theories that regard fiction-generated emotions as considerably different from emotions that we experience in our everyday lives, I elaborate my own view that we bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.



Sherwood Anderson once claimed that, in writing the story cycle Winesburg, Ohio, of which “Hands” is a part, he was “at home among my own people” (Anderson 1977: 15).  Elsewhere, however, he has insisted that the characters in Winesburg were inspired by the residents of the Chicago tenement district in which he lived at the time (Anderson 1941: 70).  At the heart of both claims is Anderson’s belief in the imaginative reality of his characters.  Although Anderson disavowed any suggestion that his writing was a form of realism, as the term is conventionally understood, it seems clear that he imagined his characters as real individuals with distinct identities, and he intensifies our sense of his characters’ reality by attempting to enlist our sympathy for them.  This essay centers on the question of readers’ beliefs in the reality of characters in fictional narratives, and the ways in which they might respond as a result of that belief.  I will attempt to show that, although there are significant differences between real-life emotions and the emotions that readers experience while reading fiction, the two types of emotions share important similarities.  This is especially true, I contend, in terms of the processes that we undergo when responding emotionally to fictional characters, whom we intuitively regard as real people.


1.  Character and the Question of Believability

By real, of course, I do not imply a factual, living reality; rather, I believe that characters that are rendered realistically can be considered similar to people we might encounter in life—indeed, life-like—and that readers frequently regard them and respond to them as such.  I consider this defense necessary, in light of the rejection of the notion of “character” itself by some literary theorists, who are reluctant to view characterization as something that can be analyzed independent of a given text,2 and by some aestheticians, who consider readers’ emotional responses to fictional characters categorically different from their emotional responses to real people.  While I acknowledge the usefulness of some of these critical and philosophical perspectives regarding the process by which readers imagine or respond to a character in a fictional text, I attempt to refocus the discussion by examining readers’ experiences of a character as a result of this process.  By focusing on this very personal, experiential, often emotional form of imagination, I believe, we can begin to understand the ways in which a story might affect a reader.


One reason for the confusion that frequently surrounds the discussion of characters in fiction originates, I believe, in some of the assumptions upon which that discussion is based.  Aestheticians and literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.”   On the surface, this seems obvious.  I wish to show, however, that, when viewed from a different perspective, this notion is much less conclusive than it might appear. 


Rather than try to locate the precise ontological identities of characters,3 I would like to look instead at the way we come to know characters, which, I hope to show, is not so unlike the way we come to know people, in person and particularly through works of non-fiction.  Let us take, as an example, one very briefly developed, yet (to my mind) highly evocative character:  Wing Biddlebaum, from the Winesburg story “Hands.”  In this story, the information that readers receive about the character, while highly personal, hardly constitutes enough to form anything akin to a complete picture.  For instance, we see the strand of hair that falls on Wing’s balding pate (Anderson 1996: 9); we learn about the way in which he was driven from another town (12-13); we even watch as he picks up bread crumbs from the floor of his home (13).  To be sure, we learn a lot about the man in a short span—in some cases, we discover things that are more personal than the things that we might learn about our spouses and siblings.  Yet, as I have suggested, the picture is partial:  there are many details that are left out—that must be left out—in any written work, and particularly in short written works.4


Indeed, the fragmentary nature of information provided in fiction tends to confuse the discussion of the relationship between fiction and reality.  Significantly, I believe it denies many readers’ intuitive sense of the fundamentally parallel nature of fictional characters and people,5 and even serves to reinforce the notion of their essential difference.  Like our experience of fictional characters, our knowledge and impressions of real people in our daily lives, with the exception of close family and friends, is fragmentary, incomplete.  We make do with that fragmentary information in much the same way that we do while reading fiction, by filling in gaps6 in our knowledge with hunches, ideas, feelings, or impressions based on our experiences with people, our sense of places, and other relatively intuitive factors.  Put simply, that which allows us to form a mental image of a “complete” human being out of the fictional fragments that are provided is precisely our own experience with people.  We fill in, I contend, largely with information provided by our experience in “real life.”  In this respect, we respond to characters that are primarily “real” in their essences, however much the focus for our reflection has been “made up” by an author.7


If accurate, this conception of the process by which we “complete” a picture of a character or person by filling in the details of that picture with the information that our life experience has provided us, lends credibility to views of character such as those of Baruch Hochman.  In Character in Literature, Hochman (1985: 36) asserts:

What links characters in literature to people in life, as we fabricate them in consciousness, is the integral unity of our conception of people and of how they operate. …[T]here is a profound congruity between the ways in which we apprehend characters in literature, documented figures in history, and people of whom we have what we think of as direct knowledge in life.  In my view, even the clues that we take in and use to construct an image of a person are virtually identical in literature and in life.


Hochman claims that we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”  I would like to address this point first, which I believe will help to establish the foundation for his second point, namely, that correspondences exist between our construction of fictional characters and our construction of “documented figures in history, and people of whom we have…direct knowledge in life.”


While Hochman’s notion of a “construct” created by the reader is left fairly undefined, it does suggest the idea of gestalt, a concept that has formed the basis of numerous theories of reading and meaning-making.8  This view of our mental activity while reading or imagining, involving a sort of “picture-completion,” is delineated in a particularly suggestive way by Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading.  As Iser describes the process, the reader “identifies the connections between the linguistic signs and thus concretizes the references not explicitly manifested in those signs” (Iser 1978: 121).  According to Iser, then, the reader “concretizes” (forms a complete or stable picture) from “references not explicitly manifested” (from something that is not supplied by the text), either by drawing connections between elements in the text, or by drawing in notions that come from the reader’s own experience.9  Following this line of thinking, it seems clear that, when “concretizing” fictional characters, we intuitively fill in the picture using that which we know from the world of real persons, with the end result that the fictional world ultimately becomes peopled by characters who seem real to us as readers.  This is true even for characters in stories that fall into the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and “magic realism”:  Even though the fantastic or speculative or “magical” components in such works would not appear so other-worldly were it not for the contrast between real-seeming characters and their fantastic behavior and lives, in the end we imagine those characters and their worlds by placing them within the context of things that we know.  Put another way, the process of reading becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, by which we imagine worlds that comply with our definitions of real.


This is facilitated, as I have suggested, by the gaps—the omissions of details and information—that exist in stories.  Stories naturally require more filling-in of certain types of details—perhaps the color of a character’s eyes or the style of his clothes has not been mentioned—while providing some, often very private, information that is unusual or even unlikely to be known in real life.  Readers fill in the detail that is lacking, as necessary, by drawing on what Susan Wittig calls “the ‘meaning system,’ the organized stable gestalt of beliefs and values held by the perceiver.”10  While I believe a strong argument can be made for the counterbalance provided by the text to the reader’s supposedly free imagination,11 it is nonetheless true that we are primarily responsible for the creation of meaning when reading a literary text, and gap-filling represents perhaps the greatest expression of the reader’s contribution to the imagining of the world of the text.  Sven Linnér (1980: 151), I think, expresses it perceptively when he writes, “A moment’s reflection tells us that fictitious figures, if they exist at all, exist in our conception of them.”


“Our conception of them,” naturally, proceeds from our conception of the world.  “In constituting the work [of art]…,” write Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson in their introduction to Roman Ingarden’s (1973) The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, “the aesthetic receiver tends to take an attitude toward the portrayed world which is related to the perception of physical objects; he tends to fill in the indeterminate areas in imagination just as if the portrayed objects really existed and were fully determined, as real objects are” (Crowley and Olson 1973: xvi, emphasis added).  According to this view of Ingarden’s aesthetic theory, we “fill in the indeterminate areas in imagination.”  That is, we fill in the gaps by operating under the sensation of the reality of the aesthetic object—in this case, the work of literature, and of the figures, including characters—that it presents.  The presumed distance between the real and the fictional is closed, in other words, by the connections that we draw, through our imaginations, between the literary work and our lives.12


Yet even this assertion does not go far enough, I believe, in evaluating the correspondences inherent in our perception of fiction and reality.  There is a tendency among literary scholars and philosophers to view our experience of fictional characters, and of fiction generally, in terms of what it is not, what it lacks.  We say that we perceive fictional characters in light of our experience in the real world, but hasten to add that such characters are “not real,” or that the ontological status of fictional characters is of “another reality”—which, of course, is a philosophical way of asserting that, in fact, they are not real.  While there is nothing essentially wrong with this view—fictional characters are imaginary—this formulation tends to blind us to how similar the way in which we perceive real people is to our way of apprehending fictional characters.  If I encounter a person, a stranger, at the railway station, and he happens to tell me a condensed version of his life story, I imagine that story based on people I have known and situations that I have experienced.  The reality of the individual before me does not lessen the need for gap-filling, for he can never supply enough details to provide me with something resembling a complete picture of his life.  This is likewise true of individuals with whom I might have more than passing acquaintance, simply because our personal histories are infinitely complex and ultimately unfathomable.13


While I believe that there can be little objection to the suggestion of the similarity between gap-filling in real life and gap-filling in fiction, there are obvious differences, the most significant of which is the fact that the former occurs in response to individuals who actually exist or have existed “in the world,” while the latter is motivated by characters who exist in text.  Indeed, this distinction is an important component of Susan Feagin’s claim, in Reading with Feeling, that sympathy for fictional characters is different in nature from sympathy in real life.  Feagin (1996: 126-28) points out (correctly, I believe) that we sometimes “pretend to care” for people we meet in real life, whereas, in response to fictional characters, this would make no sense.  This is undoubtedly true. Yet, by attempting to compare a physical entity (a real person) with what amounts to a written description of a similar entity (a fictional character), Feagin argues on the basis of a false analogy.  A more accurate comparison would place fictional narratives alongside works of narrative non-fiction.  Through such a comparison (and still following Feagin’s line of thinking), it is easy to see that one would hardly feign sympathy in response to a person described in a non-fiction narrative, either, for one would have no practical reason to display a socially appropriate response to a real individual that has been depicted and encountered in a work of narrative non-fiction.


This is not to suggest that there are not important distinctions between the two narrative forms, as various scholars have pointed out.14   The very fact that readers consider the events and characters to exist or to have existed in their own (i.e., the “real”) world lends them greater credibility.   As Markku Lehtimäki (2007: 33) points out in his discussion of literary non-fiction, “the issue [of defining literary non-fiction] becomes rather more complicated when we recognize those various ways by which both authors and readers ‘implicate’ themselves in narratives that purport to say something significant about our public realities and shared histories.” 


Despite these differences, there are important similarities between the basic processes involved in the concretization by the reader of characters in fiction and people in non-fiction.  Significantly, neither in fictional nor in non-fictional texts do we (necessarily) have direct experience of the characters/persons involved.  In this respect, as suggested earlier, both types of narrative draw on our experience of people in real life to formulate conclusions, imagine settings and motives, and other creative dimensions of the reading process.  Sven Linnér (1980: 151-52) recognizes this similarity when, in “On the ‘Reality’ of Fictitious Characters,” he compares the ways that readers reconstruct Napoleon from memoir and from fictional narrative:

It is sufficient if we bear in mind what we all have experienced, namely, that fictitious characters do exist in our imagination.  But then we should immediately add on the basis of our own experience that the same can also be true of real persons.  Suppose that I am interested in Napoleon.  I read eyewitness descriptions of the great man en intime, and using this material I piece together a picture of “the real man” Napoleon.  Suppose now instead that the only close-up I have of the emperor is taken from Tolstoj’s War and Peace.  Everything indicates that my idea of Napoleon, although its content varies, is formed in a similar way in both cases.  I may, of course, say to myself that Tolstoj’s portrait is fictitious (even if the author studied the historical sources), whereas the memoirs are based on first-hand impressions (which, of course, may be colored by sympathies or malice).  Still, it is reasonable to assume that my attempts to understand the Napoleon I picture to myself proceed in exactly the same way, regardless of how I judge the authenticity of that picture.


While I realize that there undoubtedly will be objections to Linnér’s assertion, based on the relative truth claims of factual propositions as opposed to fictional propositions,15 I believe that his comparison indicates the difficulty in distinguishing between readers’ ideas about fictional and non-fictional characters.  In both, Linnér suggests, we attempt to “piece together” the historical Napoleon, the only formal differences being the specific content on which each account relies.


Thus, while readers may recognize the difference between such truth claims—may indeed respond differently, based on this knowledge, to works that purport to represent fact instead of fiction—the distinction treats readers’ responses as essentially predetermined by the nature of the text.  In order, partly, to address this imbalance, analytic philosophers during the 1970’s began to ask the question, in the words of Margit Sutrop (2000: 17), “What is the reader’s attitude to fiction?”  This question, as valuable as it was/is in drawing attention to the activity of the reader in creating meaning for the text, might be divided more meaningfully into, “What is the reader’s attitude to (a work of) fiction before reading it?” and, “What is the reader’s attitude to (a work of) fiction while reading it?”  This division suggests what I consider a significant dynamic of readers’ responses to fiction, one that has been relatively neglected in reader response theories.  On the one hand (regarding the first question), a reader approaches a fictional work as fiction—in other words, with the intention of inducing an (aesthetic) experience.  On the other hand (regarding the second question), a reader who engages deeply with a work of fiction—who becomes absorbed, for instance, on an emotional level—may simultaneously disengage his awareness of the work’s fictionality.  He may have the fictionality at the back of his mind, but the front of his mind, so to speak, is occupied by the sensation of realism that the work produces.  This is not so much a question of the “suspension of disbelief” as the generation of temporary belief.16  Although Iser (1978: 132) uses the traditional terminology of “suspension,” I believe that he accurately describes this process, when he writes:

Reading has the same structure as experience, to the extent that our entanglement has the effect of pushing our various criteria of orientation back into the past, thus suspending their validity for the new present.  This does not mean, however, that these criteria or our previous experiences disappear altogether.  On the contrary, our past still remains our experience, but what happens now is that it begins to interact with the as yet unfamiliar presence of the text.17


This process by which “our various criteria of orientation” are “pushed back” or “suspended” during the act of reading must be seen, in turn, as having a limiting effect on the “truth claims” that I described earlier.  Such truth claims, in fact, may have relatively little bearing on the question of literal belief when we have adopted temporary beliefs while reading a work of fiction.


I believe that it is this process that allows us to respond similarly to fictional and non-fictional narratives, in the manner described by Linnér.  As I have suggested, Linnér (1980: 151) makes a particularly strong case for the correspondence between our experiences of fictional characters and real people, both in non-fiction narratives and in real life.  While he makes clear, “as is obvious to us all, there is an ontological distinction between fictitious and real persons” (151), he likewise recognizes the essential compatibility of our everyday experiences and those that we encounter while reading.  Along these lines, W.J. Harvey (1965: 32, emphasis original) argues convincingly, “The ‘suspension of disbelief’ involved in reading what we know to be fiction seems to me to pose no special psychological difficulty; every day we make more daring and radical assumptions about other people in real life.”


This experiential component of reading, in turn, seems particularly relevant to the discussion of the real-fictional dichotomy.  By shifting the emphasis from the ontological nature of fictional characters to the ways in which we feel and think about them while we read, Linnér, Harvey, Robert Alter (1989), Frank Palmer (1992) and others have identified the very source of our engagement with fictional characters: their similarity with real people.18  This similarity, in turn, has implications for our understanding of the nature of the emotions that readers experience towards fictional characters, as I will clarify in the next section.         


2. Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters

Closely related to the debate over readers’ conceptions of fictional characters is the question of the nature of the emotions that readers experience in response to fiction.  Many of the philosophers and literary scholars who allow for the possibility of significant emotional response to fiction, do so with qualifications and reservations about the nature of the types of emotions that fiction can generate.  Indeed, “the distinction of fiction,” as Dorrit Cohn (1999) characterizes it, has led some theorists to draw stark distinctions between the emotions that readers experience in response to fiction and fictional characters, on the one hand, and to non-fiction and real-life individuals on the other.  Thus, Kendall Walton calls fiction-induced emotions quasi-emotions (1990: 195-204), implying that such responses are of an entirely different character from our experiences in real life. Yet, as the earlier example of “feigned” sympathy suggests, this division is less obvious than it would appear.  In this section, therefore, I will argue that some of the very factors that, in the previous section, led me to claim that there are inherent similarities between readers’ experiences of real people and of fictional characters, must also lead us to reject the view that the emotions that we experience while reading are necessarily “pretended,” “simulated,” or otherwise fabricated, as some theorists have seemed to suggest.

Particularly influential in the philosophical attempt to characterize readers’ emotional responses to fiction has been the so-called “pretense” or “make-believe” theory of emotional response.  Originally developed by Kendall Walton, this theory rests on the assumption that emotions experienced while reading fiction involve the psychological equivalent of children’s pretense; that we use fiction as the object of “make-believe” scenarios and, in the process, imagine having emotions (as opposed to experiencing real emotions).  In “Spelunking, Simulation, and Slime,” for instance, Walton (1997: 38, emphases original) compares our use of literature to the make-believe games of children:

Consider children’s games of make-believe.  Children do not peer into worlds apart, nor do they merely engage in a clinical intellectual exercise, entertaining thoughts about cops and robbers, or whatever.  The children are in the thick of things; they participate in the worlds of their games.  We appreciators also participate in games of make-believe, using works as props.  Participation involves imagining about ourselves as well as about the characters and situations of the fiction—but not just imagining that such and such is true of ourselves.  We imagine doing things, experiencing things, feeling in certain ways.



At first glance, Walton’s comparison seems apt and true for the experience of reading.  Few would quarrel with the notion that “we imagine doing things, experiencing things.”19  Yet Walton has lumped, along with “imagining doing” and “imagining experiencing,” the idea that we also “imagine feeling,” which to my way of thinking suggests an entirely different activity than is implied by the doing and experiencing forms of imagination.  Walton (1997: 38) cites Nöel Carroll, who allegedly claims that Walton’s view “relegates our emotional responses to fiction to the realm of make-believe.”  While Walton rejects the charge, I believe the substance of Carroll’s assertion to be true, for Walton, in the same context, contends that the imaginative activity involved in reading is one of “mental simulation,” by which we supposedly test and try out various scenarios and experiences (including emotions) that are presented in a given fictional text.


 While Walton developed his theory of make-believe prior to and, therefore, independent of simulation theories, it is instructive to notice the levels of compatibility between the two.  For instance, Walton calls works of fiction “props” that we can use to play games of make-believe—to simulate situations and emotional states, particularly those that we would not be inclined to endure in our own lives.  Thus, in a sense, Walton skirts the issue of the paradox of fiction by focusing less on our beliefs about fictional characters than on how we use our experience of reading about them.  Walton (1990: 70) claims that what distinguishes a work of history from a work of fiction is the fact that we don’t use non-fictional works “as props in games of make-believe.”  In a circular way, then, Walton has erected his own “functionalist” (Sutorp 2000: 88) version of the real-fictional dichotomy—indeed, a version that is more limiting than most, because it circumscribes the uses to which fiction can be put.  “[I]t is his aim,” writes Margit Sutorp (2000: 88), “to avoid definitions of fiction and representational art in terms other than their function.”


This functionalist thrust, in fact, is present in many simulation, or simulation-like, theories of emotional response to fiction.  Gregory Currie (1998), for instance, provides a simulation-based examination of how we can use fictions as projections and plans.  Similarly, Keith Oatley and Mitra Gholamain (1997: 267) suggest that,

by engaging with the art of the theater or of the novel, we are induced to run on ourselves narrative simulations of actions, with their consequences and emotional effects.

        In the theater or in a novel, we can concentrate on our emotions and reflect upon them in a safe place away from the ordinary world; this being so, we can come to a better understanding of their relation to our beliefs, desires, and actions.



The difficulty with this conception of readers’ emotional responses to fiction is that it implicitly views reading as having as its aim particular practical purposes.  Like Walton’s functionalist model of reading, Oatley and Gholamain suggest that readers can simulate the emotions or experiences of characters in fiction in order to “test” them in their own lives.  While this obviously offers an intriguing application of our experiences of fictional characters after the fact,20 it seems to deny somewhat the experiential component of reading, by which, as I have suggested throughout this chapter, we sometimes come to temporarily “believe” in the reality of the fiction that we are reading, or, at the very least, regard fictional characters as we would real individuals.


Moreover, simulation theory, like pretense theory, relies on a relatively “mechanical” metaphorical construct to explain the reader’s mental activity while reading.  With make-believe, the reference is to the structure and processes of children’s play.  In simulation theory, more often than not, the reader’s mental activity is compared with that of a computer.  Thus, Oatley and Gholamain (1997: 265) rely on this trope in their discussion of “Aristotle’s notion that a tragic drama is a simulation of human actions.  Actions are portrayed by actors in the theater and—more importantly—the whole play must run on the minds of the audience, as a computer simulation runs on a computer.”  Similarly, Feagin (1996: 88, emphasis original) claims that, “Engaging in this simulation requires the ability to shift psychological ‘gears,’ to go ‘off line’ from many (though not all) of one’s current sensations and beliefs, so that ideas and thoughts of what one would encounter can then be recruited to play a role in a simulation.”21  On the one hand, Feagin’s description of the “off line” activity of readers certainly reflects the type of immersion in the emotional experience that I will claim readers frequently experience while reading fiction.  However, the hypothetical nature of this experience that she describes—“what one would encounter”—seems curiously distant from the experience in the moment of responding to a fictional character or situation.


Indeed, despite the intuitive appeal of these theories in explaining the nature of our emotional responses to fictional characters, they do not silence the nagging questions that give rise to the discussion of the paradox of emotional response to fiction in the first place:  Why, if fiction is indeed “merely fiction”—a well-propped stage for make-believe and simulations—do we find offense in a fiction that violates our ethical principles, or makes light of a catastrophe?  If it is “just fiction,” why should we care?  Is it not because fiction, and our experience of it, is intertwined with that which we call “reality”—indeed, that we feel that our beliefs, even towards an ostensible fiction, somehow matter?  Regardless of our disposition to these questions—indeed, even if such intense emotional reactions did not occur in response to works of fiction—it would be difficult to assert, conclusively, that our experience of fiction is more like “make-believe” or “simulation” than it is like any other type of imaginative activity, especially in the absence of empirical evidence to suggest such a specific correlation.  At best, I think, we might say that it depends on the nature of the individual’s experience of a particular work of literature. 


Among the potential range of emotional responses to fictional narratives, I believe that we must try to account for readers’ experiences of being immersed in an emotional reaction,22 for I believe it is precisely in this respect that, as I have suggested, theories of pretense and simulation fall short of the mark.  Earlier, I cited Iser’s (1978: 132) claim that, while reading fiction, “our entanglement has the effect of pushing our various criteria of orientation back into the past, thus suspending their validity for the new present.”  I further suggested that one way of looking at this “suspension” might be as a generation of temporary “belief” in the fictional world and its characters.  One way of understanding this type of immersion, which is important to the understanding of emotions produced by fiction, is to compare it to the notion of the “dream state.”23  According to this conception, perhaps less a theory than an extended metaphor, our experience while reading is something akin to the reality we encounter while we dream: even when we sense, while dreaming, the awareness that “it’s only a dream,” we nevertheless may believe in the pleasures and horrors that occur in the dream.  John Gardner’s (1978: 112-13) description of the dream-like state that reading induces, as well as the often considerable intensity of that experience, does more to approximate the sensation of reality that we sometimes encounter while reading fiction, I believe, than does the theory of make-believe:

[T]he 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.



Like Walton’s make-believe theory, this notion seems more speculative than conclusive, based as it is on the logical implications of his—that is to say, his own—impressions as a reader.  More recent theory, such as cognitive psychologist Richard Gerrig’s (1993) notion of being “transported” by fictional narratives, may lend some empirical support for this view.  Having said this, 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.


It is clear that Walton, for his part, recognizes this connection, even though he attempts, in some respects, to conflate the notion of dreaming with that of make-believe by emphasizing the dreamer’s use of “props.”  On the one hand, Walton (1990: 50) claims that a dreamer may be “immersed solely in the fictional world, and the daydreamer may be also.”  In the next instant, however, he insists on the role of props in the dreamer’s activity, even though the dreamer may be oblivious to them: “He is likely not to pay any more attention to the props, to his own dream experiences, than perceivers ordinarily pay to their perceptual experiences” (Walton 1990: 50).  In the end, though, Walton (1990: 50, emphasis added) seems compelled to concede the absorption, and the relative lack of propositions and props, that pertain to dreams:  “Perhaps (as Descartes assumes) dreamers believe what is only fictional in their dreams, as well as imagining it.  We needn’t decide.”  Needn’t we?  Walton attempts to quickly bypass the very quality in dreaming that Gardner contends resembles our experience of reading fiction, and that Carroll (1997), by implication, seeks to identify as an element that is lacking in Walton’s theory of emotional response to fiction.  In other words, while Walton claims that we merely imagine emotions, Gardner and Carroll insist that we genuinely feel and often genuinely believe in the reality of a fiction while we are experiencing it.


While it is true that the emotions that readers feel for fictional characters, in the immediate sense, must remain “unconsummated,” to use the expression of Robert Yanal (1999: 101-123), it seems unwarranted to consider such emotions as necessarily “lesser” in quality or intensity—as quasi-emotions—than emotions that we experience in our ordinary lives.  To be sure, there are plenty of examples of situations where the fictional “equivalent” to a real-life emotional experience clearly possesses a less meaningful or intense character.  Parkinson and Manstead (1993: 295-96), for instance, point to the qualitative difference between the response to the news that one’s actual relative has a terminal illness and the report of a fictional character contracting the same illness.  Yet, when a narrative of some occurrence involves strangers—fictional or otherwise, and particularly if communicated in written form—I claim that the divide is less obvious or absolute than it might appear.  Indeed, as Parkinson and Manstead’s example suggests, the intensity of readers’ emotional responses to narratives depends greatly on the proximity of the events and the situations of the characters to their lives.


This intuition is confirmed by research in social psychology.  According to Myyry and Helkama (2007: 251), in one study “personal dilemmas evoked more emotions than impersonal ones.  Especially upset, anger and sympathy scored significantly higher in personal situations than in impersonal situations.”  The authors point here to differences between the effects on respondents of narratives “involving a specific person or group of people with whom the person has a significant relationship” as opposed to those involving “strangers” (251).  I would suggest that, in the case of both fictional and non-fictional narratives, readers typically encounter “strangers” of various sorts, and their emotional involvement with them depends to a large extent on the degree to which the narrative manages to diminish the sense of distance that readers feel towards those strangers.  Indeed, our experiences with characters in fiction frequently cause them to become something “less than strangers”—and even, sometimes, more than acquaintances, as Coles (1989: 68-82) shows in telling the story of one student’s response to Ellison’s Invisible Man, which Coles taught in one of his courses.


Given the proximity or “parallelism” between real-life and fiction-related experiences,  including emotions, Yanal suggests a view of fiction-generated emotions that I believe clarifies the type of experience that readers may have in response to fictional characters and their fictionalized situations.  In Paradoxes of Emotion and Fiction, he describes the type of emotions that we experience with characters about whom we have learned a great deal as “richly generated,” to the extent that “what we have is real pity that must be kept to oneself, real anger that is forever ineffectual, real love that is never to be returned” (Yanal 1999: 123).  In this way, Yanal attempts to circumvent the paradox that lies at the heart of this chapter: What are we to make of the intense emotions that we often feel for characters in fiction?  Moreover, I wish to suggest that the “richly generated” quality of these emotions, while indeed “real,” are not necessarily “kept to oneself,” do not “forever remain ineffectual.”  Motivated by the fictional world, they sometimes find their outlet outside the fictional world, in the fabric of our lives.


I believe this is what J. Hillis Miller (1987: 4) means when he writes, in The Ethics of Reading, “the ethical moment in reading leads to an act.”  While Miller’s specific examples in this context relate to teaching, it is not difficult to extend the realm of action to other spheres of interest.  Indeed, Miller clearly is hesitant to circumscribe the possible effects that a work of fiction might have on a reader.  Having identified in “realistic fiction” (in this case, that of George Eliot) a “performative force” that “make[s] something happen, in the ‘real’ world, that would not otherwise have happened,” Miller (1987: 76) admits his uncertainty regarding the precise “something” that may “happen…in the ‘real’ world”:

Even if it can be decided that performatives do make something happen, it can never be decided exactly what that something is and whether that something is good or bad.  All performatives are unpredictable and unmeasurable.  A performative can never be controlled, defined, or have a decisive line put around its effects.  The link between knowledge and power goes by way of language, and that link is both a barrier and a break, a gulf.  Language used performatively makes something happen all right, but the link between knowing and doing can never be predicted exactly or understood perspicuously after the fact.


While Miller contends that the specific effects of a given work on a particular reader can “never be predicted or understood,”24 his conviction that a link between reading and “real-world” action may exist invites consideration of the possible ways in which our experience of fiction and fictional characters extend beyond the experience of reading.


In some cases, it is possible that the link between reading and real-world response occurs as a result of what Gregory Currie (1990: 188) calls “the transfer strategy,” by which “we experience genuine emotions when we encounter fiction, but their relation to the story is causal rather than intentional; the story provokes thoughts about real people and situations, and these are the intentional objects of our emotions.”25  This is not to suggest that readers, as psychologist Darcia Narvaez (2002: 166) skeptically puts it, will automatically “link at least one character-action-outcome that is transferable to other stories or natural events.”  As I will clarify in chapter 8 (and as Narvaez herself emphatically asserts), research does not support the claim that readers necessarily receive messages intended by authors:

[C]hildren, like other readers, filter the moral message or theme according to their conceptions of the social world.  These filters often distort the intended message “sent” by an author. (Narvaez 2002: 166)


Given the effects of the filters that we bring to the reading experience, it is naturally difficult to pinpoint precisely what motivates an emotional or ethical response by a particular reader to a particular work of literature; whether to attribute that response to features within the text, or to locate it in the experiences and impressions that readers form throughout their lives, or to find it in the moment and context of the reading itself.  Edward Bullough (1970: 786) makes this point convincingly when he describes what he calls the “principle of concordance” between a work of art and a reader:  “The success and intensity of its [the work of art’s] appeal would seem…to stand in direct proportion to the completeness with which it corresponds with our intellectual and emotional peculiarities and the idiosyncrasies of our experience.”26


Whether or not this “intensity” is sufficient to make us “want this text to be part of our world” (Altieri 2001: 54)—to draw the text, in a sense, into the circle of our experience, rather than relegating it to a separate, exclusively “aesthetic” encounter—thus remains an open question.  Yet I would argue, as I have throughout this essay, that many readers take significant elements of their experiences with fictional characters into their non-fictional worlds in ways that suggest that they regard the emotions that they feel while reading as something more than fiction.




1 This essay is based, primarily, on the second chapter of my doctoral dissertation, The Art of Sympathy: Forms of Moral and Emotional Persuasion in Fiction, which I defended in 2008.  I especially would like to thank Prof. Bo Pettersson of the Department of English and Prof. Arto Haapala of the Department of Aesthetics for their extensive and thoughtful responses to earlier versions of this essay.  Short portions of this essay also appeared in Cognition and Literary Interpretation in Practice (Helsinki University Press, 2005), edited by Harri Veivo, Bo Pettersson, and Merja Polvinen.  The author gratefully acknowledges the permission of the editors to reprint material contained in that publication.


2 Alter (1989: 50-53) provides a spirited critique of some of these notions.


3 Cf. Haapala (1983, 1996) and Chatman (1981), among others.


4 See chapter 7 of my dissertation for an in-depth look at this story.


5 W. J. Harvey (1966: 16), in Character and the Novel, writes:  “[P]art of the uniqueness of any work of art lies in its individual mimetic relationship to life.  To convey this complexity I wish to coin for future use a trope derived from geometry and speak of the angle of mimesis.  The ‘normal’ work—a member of the Middlemarch family—we may metaphorically regard as lying very nearly parallel to life itself—it has a narrow mimetic angle.  On the other hand, a fantasy like Alice in Wonderland stands almost at right-angles to life….[I]f, for example, we move from War and Peace to The Possessed to Moby Dick to The Trial, we can see the novel subtending a wider and wider mimetic arc.  But in each of these cases we must make sense of the idea that the ‘truth’ of the novel resides not merely in its internal consistency but in its relationship to life.”  While some may question the appropriateness or accuracy of Harvey’s metaphor, I find in its emphasis on the proximity of literary characters to “life” a useful counterweight to the focus, in discussions of the ontological status of such characters, on the difference between fiction and reality.  Of course, the fiction-reality distinction, and its bearing on the question of the “realism” of fictional characters, is more complicated than this, as I discuss in chapter 4 of my dissertation.  Relevant to Harvey’s notion of fictional works as parallel to real life, see Yanal’s notion of fiction as a “parallel universe” (summarized in Yanal 1999: 120-21).


6 In his chapter “Gaps, Ambiguity, and the Reading Process” in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Sternberg defines the process of gap-filling as follows: “[T]he literary work consists of bits and fragments to be linked and pieced together in the process of reading: it establishes a system of gaps that must be filled in.  This gap-filling ranges from simple linkages of elements, which the reader performs automatically, to intricate networks that are figured out consciously, laboriously, hesitantly, and with constant modifications in light of additional information disclosed in later stages of the reading” (Sternberg 1985: 186).  (Compare Sternberg’s definition with those of Daniel Boyarin [1990: 41], “Gap-Filling and Midrashic Indeterminacy,” and Wolfgang Iser [1978: 165-179]). Note that Sternberg here is referring to a conscious literary strategy, rather than the coincidental absence of information. Whether intended or not, though, gaps of information in literary narratives necessitate the sort of gap-filling that I have suggested above.


7 Arto Haapala (1983: 74) calls this “the author’s say-so,” an expression that I think captures the degree to which the reader is at the whim of the author’s imagination.  I do not believe, however, that this aspect of the author-reader relationship denies the sense of reality that many readers experience, as I will elaborate shortly.


8 See, among others, Iser (1978: 120-31), but also Iser (1993: 140ff); Lakoff and Johnson (“The Coherent Structuring of Experience,” in 1980: 77-86); Köhler (1947); and Ingarden (1973).  Cf. Stockwell’s (2002: 13-18, 25) discussion of similar issues as they relate to cognitive approaches to narrative.  In addition to the notion of gestalt described here, psychologists also refer to readers’ “generalized knowledge structures,” or “schemas” (Narvaez 2002: 157-59), which allow them to fill in or construct the meaning of a text.  Brewer and Lichtenstein (1982: 474-79), whose “structural-affect theory” I discuss at some length in chapter 6 of my dissertation, also rely on “story schemas” to account for readers’ production of story meaning.  For a discussion of schemas as they have been theorized to apply to cognitive poetics, see Stockwell (2002: 78-82) and Schneider (2001).


9 Iser (1978: 167) emphasizes, however, that when readers’ “projections superimpose themselves unimpeded upon the text”, the “interaction” between text and reader may “fail.”  Regarding my characterization of the process of gap-filling itself, I should hasten to point out that my choice of a “pictorial” metaphor to describe this process in no way implies that I claim, for reading, a purely pictorial character.  Margit Sutrop (2000: 134-35) has correctly identified the inappropriateness of assuming an imagistic context for imagination.  Iser himself—despite his extended discussion of the applicability of gestalt theory to the reading process (1978: 120-131)—seems to distance himself from gestalt in his later The Fictive and the Imaginary by pointing out experiments that have demonstrated the difficulties in ascribing pictorial imagery, among other things, to the concepts imagined by blind persons, and he likewise notes that sounds have no intrinsic “pictorial” value (Iser 1993: 140-41).  Certainly, then, one may take issue with the visual orientation of the gestalt approach, much in the same way that narratologists have wrestled with “point of view” as opposed to focalization (see Bal 1997, Rimmon-Kenan 1983, Phelan 2005: 110-19), yet the basic notion of something partial or fragmentary being completed by the mind of the reader/beholder seems to me an obvious component of the reading process, whether or not it is understood as a visual/pictorial concept, or as something altogether abstract or indefinable.


10 Quoted in Boyarin (1990: 85).


11 In the words of Meir Sternberg (1985: 188), “literature is remarkable for its powers of control and validation.”


12 Arto Haapala, citing Marie-Laure Ryan’s notion of “the principle of minimal departure,” writes, “An author cannot determine all the relevant fictional truths, and this is not even necessary because he can rely on readers’ knowledge concerning the general truths of the real world.  The principle of minimal departure states that a fictional world should be construed—in my view this means imagined—to be as close as possible to our everyday reality.  An author gives by his text only basic elements of the world of his work because he assumes that his readers imagine the fictional world to be in many respects similar to the real world” (Haapala 1983: 75, emphases added).


13 What I am suggesting in this argument is quite different from that which Tanja Vesala-Varttala (1999: 60-61) argues:  “The problem with the ‘process of reading’ approach to narrative lies in its stabile and ahistorical nature.  By ‘ahistorical’ I refer to the kind of reading that does not account for the historical intervention, the cultural ‘noises’ which readers bring to the textual encounter in each and every rereading….The process of reading approach is constitutive of a fully definable process with ‘the foolproof narrator and the foolproof reader,’ as Daniel Boyarin has remarked…; it gives no serious consideration to the possibilities of alternative readings.  Even the reader’s recourse to ‘stories’ (ideologies, norms, values) external to the narrative is seen to be incited and controlled by the twists and gaps in the authorial/narrational rhetoric of a given literary work.  The reading experience may be one of ethical tension or moral confusion, depending on the interplay between various internal and external aspects activated during the reading process, but the basic idea is that it is possible to articulate, explain, even sometimes explain away, such tension and confusion by reference to established conventions and frames of reading.”  While I contend that particular textual features in stories can set parameters for readers’ experiences in response to those stories, this by no means is meant to suggest that readers respond identically, or that ambiguities are somehow resolved, or that a variety of feelings that readers may experience are suppressed by a text’s rhetoric.  I clarify this last point in depth in the last chapter of my dissertation, as well as in Sklar 2008b, as part of my discussion of the pedagogical implications of sympathizing with the protagonists in two of the stories included in that study.


14 Useful discussions of the distinctions between fictional and non-fictional narratives include Cohn (1999), Genette (1990), Lehtimäki (2007), Ricoeur (1984) and Young (1988).  Young, for instance, raises interesting questions about the role of fiction, and the construction of fact (in memoirs and other historical documents), in relation to the Holocaust.  On this last issue, see also Langer (1975: 1-30).


15 See, for example, Walton (1990), Feagin (1997), Haapala (1983, 1993), Currie (1997), and others.


16 My motive in using this expression is only partly due to my desire to use positive, rather than negative, formulations in describing fiction, fictional worlds, and readers’ responses to fiction.  Ultimately, I believe that “temporary belief” more accurately describes the experience of many readers while they read works of fiction.  Nevertheless, Iser (1978) and Harvey (1966) have provided particularly compelling accounts of the notion of “suspension of disbelief,” as I shall demonstrate presently.  Cf. Yanal (1999: 102ff), who argues that readers who experience emotions in response to fiction never actually lose their disbelief, but maintain a balance between too “active” a level of disbelief (in which case, response would be irrationally intense) and too low a level of activity of disbelief (which would make it difficult to feel much of anything).


17 It should be noted, here, that Iser’s account of the experience of reading draws on Dewey’s Art as Experience.  Dewey (1934: 240-41), like Iser, regards an aesthetic experience as one that is integrated with our everyday experiences.


18 Alter’s “Character and the Connection with Reality” (in Alter 1989) is a formidable defense of the notion of character, generally, and of the connection with real people that we experience while reading about fictional characters.  Palmer (1992: 104) rhetorically challenges the assumption that our responses to fictional characters are fundamentally different from our responses to real people:  “[I]f we can enter into perfectly intelligible discussion about fictional persons without the belief that they actually exist, why should we suppose that understanding such persons and their circumstances would be any less intelligible without that existential belief?”


19 In chapter 3 of my dissertation, I examine how, according to the “deictic shift” theory, readers are effectively placed within the experience that is being narrated.  See also Kuivalainen’s detailed discussion of this idea in the present volume.


20 Herman (2003) makes this point very effectively, as I show in the final chapter of my dissertation and in Sklar 2008b.


21 While Feagin (1996) likewise incorporates the notion of simulation in emotional response, it is important to emphasize that she uses the term specifically in connection with empathy:  Sometimes one shifts psychological gears and then simulates what is going on in another person’s mind.  In doing so one empathizes with that other person….One empathizes with a fictional character, whom I shall call the protagonist, when one ‘shares’ an emotion, feeling, desire, or mood of that character.  The ‘sharing,’ on my account, is done through a simulation, which explains not only what emotion or affect one has but also how one can come to be in the phenomenological state identified with that affect….[T]his similarity of experience [between the empathizer and protagonist] can be defended as knowledge of what it’s like to be a certain sort of person or in a certain sort of situation” (Feagin 1996: 83).  Feagin here considers empathy—whether directed towards fictional characters or real persons—as inherently involving simulation, regardless of the distinction that she sees between art emotions and real emotions.  In this sense, empathy of any kind, in Feagin’s view, becomes an approximation of the feelings of another person or character.  Limited to this context, simulation seems a much more defensible conception of one particular type of emotional response.


22 For a useful discussion of the issue of “immersion” while reading, see Marie-Laure Ryan’s (2001) extensive discussion of this term and the concept in Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media.  Although this essay was mostly completed before I encountered that work, Ryan amplifies many of the issues that I have addressed here.


23 Oatley and Gholamain (1997: 263-65) provide an interesting review of writers and scholars who have adopted this metaphor for the experience of reading.  The authors also use the notion of dreaming to partly explain the experiences of readers:  “A constructed dream, we believe, provides a firmer basis than the impression of life for thinking about the art of fiction.”  Thus, they suggest that “what a writer of fiction provides is verbal guidance that will start up the theaters of our brains, stimulating them to construct a certain coherent experience, start up a kind of dream and sustain it” (265).  While I find these ideas compatible with the notions of immersion in fiction that I will discuss presently, I find it unfortunate, as suggested earlier, that the authors turn to simulation as a way of containing their conception of dreaming.


24 This is true, in part, on account of the different “schemas” that readers bring to the act of reading.  As psychologist Darcia Narvaez (2002: 157) points out, these “generalized knowledge structures” are “brought to mind (or ‘activated’) by a stimulus configuration that resembles previous stimuli or personal experience.”  Due to differences between the schemas that they use in constructing the meaning of the text, “readers do not take away the same mental representation from reading a text” (159).  This represents the flip side of Phelan’s (2005: 68) observation about the production of narratives, that “as soon as [narrative] techniques get identified, some narrative artist will use them for unanticipated effects” (cited in Lehtimäki 2007: 39).  In other words, both readers and writers conspire to create often unpredictable outcomes.


25 Currie ultimately rejects this theory, for reasons that are beyond the scope of the present discussion.  Yet there is some evidence for the basic thrust of the transfer hypothesis.  Hakemulder (2001: 233-37, 239; cf. 2000: 99-114) reports the results of two studies in which readers responded to a story and an essay about “the position of women in fundamentalist Islamic countries” (233).  In the second study, readers were given “empathy-building instruction” in order to determine if this affected the degree of empathy that readers experienced. In the present discussion, however, I find the first study more instructive, in that it indicates the extent that readers felt empathy without intervention.  Of this first study, Hakemulder (234) contends, “It may be concluded that stories presenting stereotype disconfirming information in its characters may affect readers’ imagination about real-world people.”


26 Narvaez (2002: 168) seems to adopt a similar view, citing Roseblatt: [I]ntense response to a work will have its roots in capacities and experiences already present in the personality and mind of the reader.”  Narvaez concludes, “Most researchers in text comprehension and experts in English education agree on this point”—although she doesn’t identify the “experts in English education” to which she refers.






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