The paradox of fiction- why we have emotional connections to fictional characters

In the book the Psychology of Entertainment by Jennings Bryant and Peter Vorderer several answers are given to this paradox. Coleridge proposes the first response that through having the ability to put aside the fact that the “events are fictional” we can become absorbed in the characters beliefs and goals [1]. This allows us to develop emotional responses to the characters and more importantly enables identification with one or more of them. Furthermore Wilson suggests “that viewers move in and out of their identification”; when the viewer chooses to ignore the “fictionality of the events” they do not “discard the ability to discern reality” [1]. The same can be said with characters, the viewer does not lose identity instead “they simply suspend it momentarily” [1]. My favorite analogy of this comes from Oatley who suggest that the fictional world is like a “semi permeable membrane”. The viewer is able to move in and out identification through “bringing some but not all of themselves into the experience” [2].

These fictional worlds are micro world where we import some, but not all, of ourselves into and subsequently to this we “experience ourselves differently in each micro world” [3]. Oatly Suggest that we either lose one’s identity in the text by taking on a characters or we “occupy both positions simultaneously and pass between them [4].”

Gerrig formulates the idea of transportation through identification. When we react to stories, especially ones of suspense, this is a result of “a natural consequence of the structure of cognitive processing”. He suggests that when we connect with a character we are experiencing transportation making “transportation a condition of identification”[5]. Whilst agreeing with Gerrig I claim that there is a distinction between two types transportation in fiction; firstly the transportation of space and time and secondly identity. The viewer when reading is transported to a different space designed by the author; when they entre the “semi- permeable membrane” they are governed by that dimensions set of rules. When identifying with a character we are again entering the membrane of the characters’ personality but these two variables can function independently from one another. You can imagine yourself as part of the space or as one of the characters individually as well as simultaneously.

I question whether the membrane is only accessible when the viewer is reading/ watching or whether it is accessible from within the viewer’s world when the characters and/or space are being explored through the reader’s imagination.

An interesting article from the Independent claimed that fictional characters influence us in our daily lives. “For many of us, this can involve experiencing the characters in a novel as people we interact with,” he 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” [6]. This would indicate that the membrane is not only penetrable in the pages of the book but can active in our lives as the characters and the story stay with us within our everyday lives.

[1] Bryant, J. and Vorderer, P. (2006) Psychology of Entertainment. Routledge, p.g.184

[2] Bryant, J. and Vorderer, P. (2006) Psychology of Entertainment. Routledge, p.g.185

[3] Bryant, J. and Vorderer, P. (2006) Psychology of Entertainment. Routledge, p.g. 55

[4] Bryant, J. and Vorderer, P. (2006) Psychology of Entertainment. Routledge, p.g.54

[5] Bryant, J. and Vorderer, P. (2006) Psychology of Entertainment. Routledge, p.g.188

[6] Connor, R. (2017) Fictional characters influence in real life, study says. Available at: (Accessed: 08/08/17)


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