Why We Resonate with Literary Characters

I have friends whom I will never meet face to face. I am not referring to online friendships or even actual people. I am talking about fictional, literary characters. I know for a fact that I am not alone out there, as I am close to several other like-minded people. Have you ever “met” a character in a book and wished that you could hang out with him or her? Have you become so involved in a storyline that you root for the characters or feel sad when things do not go well for them? I have shed more tears over books than I can admit without being embarrassed. I believe that the manner in which we respond to fictional characters has much to do with our ability to connect with others on an emotional level. The very fact that we have shared experiences with loved ones or “real” people encourages our mind to affix such attitudes and sympathies to those people who aren’t so real. In other words, it can become easy to connect with them as we would with a friend.

It can be funny and ironic in certain ways. I love many genres, yet especially delight in fantasy and science fiction. I am logically aware that regal elves are not roaming the forest, yet you better believe that Legolas from Lord of the Rings is incredibly real to me! I would take offense to someone calling me a muggle, and yet I cannot wave a wand to create magic. I have sobbed over the death of a character to a level that is absolutely absurd! There is some sort of fandom psychology there that I tremble to delve into too much! However, I will try.

In some ways, we come to know characters in a book faster than our own loved ones. Narration gives us a window into their thoughts, which allows us insight into their most private moments. Obviously, this is not something we can do in public with people. While enjoying a story, we subconsciously fill in the lost details from these character’s lives. We feel that we know what they are feeling or experiencing, which heightens their sense of solid realness.

Personally, I believe that when empathizing with our loved ones, we try to fill in those same details of what we are not clear on in their situation. Interestingly enough, this is also what we are doing with fictional characters. As a matter of fact, it can be easier to empathize with them because we are given more intimate knowledge of them due to the author’s exposition and narration. It is in our nature to fill in these blanks, relating our own emotions to someone else. Even our senses seem to get involved. For example, when we read about the scent of coffee, the olfactory center of our brain gets into action! We cannot really smell it, but we can conjure up that scent and recreate the experience. This enhances the “realness” of the character, environment, and situation of which we are reading.

At the root of all of this, being drawn to the characters in a book may not even be that we identify with them, as much as we simply enjoy spending time with them. For a few hours, we may be lost in their world. We may even long to be a part of that world, in some small way, which draws us closer to an emotional bond. The mark of a truly memorable fictional character of great writing is how often we take them with us, in our hearts and minds, when we head back into our own reality.