My first crush wasn’t on a real person. If you’ve read this blog before, then you know all about my imaginary book boyfriend. I devoured The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants books too and I loved those characters like they were my own best friends. I’m not going to lie, I cried like a baby when one of the sisters suddenly died in the final instalment. As a teen, I was obsessed with the X-Files. I loved Mulder and I wanted to be Scully. I wore black suits and even made my own FBI badge. Yup. I was completely consumed by my fandom.
Why is it that we love fictional characters when they aren’t even real?
It turns out that empathy was behind my undying pre-teen love for Fox Mulder. An episode of the Psychiatry and Psychotherapy Podcast explains the science behind empathy in detail, but what stood out for me was this idea of different types of empathy and how we use them. Because if we can experience all these different ways of being empathetic human beings, then that means maybe empathy isn’t just limited to events in real life.
There are three types of empathy: cognitive, affective & compassionate, but it’s the first two that piqued my interest. Cognitive empathy helps us see the world from someone else’s point of view. Affective empathy is what helps to create a shared emotional experience. With the help of something called mirror neurons, we’re able to feel what others are feeling just by looking at them. Voila–empathy.
Okay, so that’s how empathy works in real life. But is it the same in the fictional world?
Fill in the Blanks
Howard Sklar over at the University of Helsinki says that, yeah, it does. He tells us that our emotional response to fictional characters is just as real as an in-person experience at least in part because we fill in the blanks with our own real-life experiences and people. Have you ever imagined a villainous character to be just like someone who picked on you in school? Or how about an attractive lead character in a rom-com who inhabits your mind as that special someone you’ve been crushing on? (Or maybe you’re like me and all attractive male leads look like Mr. Darcy no matter what the description). That isn’t a coincidence. It’s the real-fictional dichotomy, making you meld the folks in real life with your fictional forays.
Love at First Read
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard that old nut of advice about “show, don’t tell,” but what sometimes gets lost in the margins is the idea that writers have to let readers read themselves into the book. That’s why Harry Potter is a skinny boy with a scar and glasses, not a full-on description of, say, Daniel Radcliffe. It’s why we read that Harry lies, but we don’t read every single inner working of his mind–that’s for the reader to fill in. It’s why we love him.
Good characters feel real partly because the author has gone to the trouble of creating detailed character sketches and making realistic dialogue, but also in part because of our own weird, wired-for-empathy brains. Our brain is wired to help us relate to others – and when a character feels real, it’s because we’re mapping our own experiences onto theirs – that’s what makes them relatable, believable and so damn lovable.
Want to write lovable characters? Leave a little white-space in your narrative and see what magic happens when fiction and real life collide.
What’s your all-time favourite character? Share in the comments below.
Bookishly yours xx