A great book can leave a lasting impression on a reader for the rest of their lives. It’s not uncommon to hear people describe a certain as having changed their lives and we often become almost as attached to the characters we meet in books as we do our real friends and family. Despite all this, it’s still quite surprising to learn that a recent study has found fictional characters seem to be able to seep into our real lives.
Researches at the University of Durham have completed a study of over 1,500 people. 19% of the respondents said the voices of fictional characters stayed with them after reading a book, even going as far as influencing their thoughts. Some participants said they could hear the character reacting to things happening in the reader’s life. One responder said it was as if the character “had started to narrate my world.”
The study first began in collaboration with The Guardian at the 2014 Edinburgh international book festival. The study also showed that more than half of readers hear characters voices as they read and a further 48% reported other similar sensory experiences as they read.
One of the paper’s authors, writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, says the survey shows how readers of fiction aren’t just reading words, they’re creating entire worlds and characters in their imagination.
“For many of us, this can involve experiencing the characters in a novel as people we can interact with,” Fernyhough said. “One in seven of our respondents, for example, said they heard the voices of fictional characters as clearly as if there was someone in the room with them.”
Many readers found that characters stayed with them after reading the book, a phenomenon Fernyhough calls “experiential crossing”. This term covers many experiences such as hearing the character’s voice in your head, hearing them react to things that happen to you in real life, and even feeling your own thoughts be influenced by them.
“One respondent, for example, described ‘feeling enveloped’ by [Virginia Woolf’s] character Clarissa Dalloway – hearing her voice and imagining her response to particular situations, such as walking into a Starbucks. Sometimes the experience seemed to be triggered by entering a real-world setting similar to one in the novel; in other situations, it felt like seeing the world through a particular character’s eyes, and judging events as the character would. The characters who make the leap into readers’ lives are typically “powerful, vivid characters and narrators”, Fernyhough added, “but this will presumably vary hugely from person to person”.
This phenomenon may only recently have been studied, but it’s one that has existed for as long as books. Fernyhough himself has experienced the phenomena, saying: “Some of my most powerful reading experiences come when I feel that the author has tinkered with the software of my own brain,” he said. “I know I’m in the presence of a great author if she or he makes me notice things I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, because the voice and sensibility on the page is sharpening my attention and bringing details into the light, and because I’m starting to think like them.”
Novelist Edward Docx has also experienced it with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. “I fell very heavily under the influence of Holden Caulfield,” Docx said. “I think a lot of people do. The way that Salinger writes, which is so intelligent and literate and insightful and – for want of a better word – cool, was very influential.” A dissenting, sardonic voice from the US was very attractive for someone growing up in the UK, he continued. “It was definitely in my head. It gave me a way of thinking and of being that wasn’t available in my immediate circumstances.”
Docx went on to note that literature’s ability to allow readers to enter the lives of others is what sets it apart from other mediums.
“It gives you the interiority of characters’ minds,” he explained. “The greatest film can’t do that, and neither can a computer game. Only the novel can give you an intimate portrait of the complex cross-currents of human psychology, to the extent where you know another person’s soul. And that’s the most intimate thing in the world.”
Writers of fiction are continually hearing voices, he added: “That’s what the job is. You’re actively encouraging them and keeping your mind open to different voices – the more of them the better … and you know you’ve written something better than usual when you get different people from different geographies coming up to you and saying they really felt something for this character or that one.”
Fernyhough, who has published two books, explained that creating characters that the reader becomes this attached to is no easy feat. “I have had readers say that they were sad that a book ended because they didn’t want the characters to go away, because they missed them,” he said. “It’s satisfying to know that you’ve created a character who has some life outside yourself.” He went on to describe creating such characters as: “laying a minefield for the heart. You want to shape how your readers think and feel – not in prescriptive ways that leave them no room to bring their own experiences and interpretations, but to allow them enter the minds of people they are not, and to have something of their experiences.”
Docx added that characters who speak to us like this are our “secret friends”, “You wish you were great pals with Holden Caulfield, that you could sit around and trade wisecracks with him,” he said. “Obviously it’s a form of madness, but then all fiction is a form of madness.”
Do you hear your favourite book characters visit you every now and then?