When we writers create a work of fiction we want it to have an impact. We want readers to identify with the characters, and in most cases we have an important theme or message we want to get across that, we hope, will stay with the reader for years to come.
I decided some time ago that fiction really all comes down to character. Novels that are heavy on plot but light on character might be entertaining reads while they last (Dan Brown’s books come to mind), but probably won’t stick with you. If the characters are really minimal, the book will flop—the reader can’t identify with the protagonist so they won’t much care what happens to them.
A recent study claims that fictional characters can change our lives.
Researchers Geoff Kaufman of Dartmouth College and Lisa Libby of Ohio State University believed that novel readers vicariously experience what the character in a good novel goes through. So much so, that we may begin to behave more like the character. They mention the example of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. If you strongly bonded with Atticus while reading the book, you might focus more on ethical behavior in your own life (unfortunately, the reverse could be true if you’re deeply immersed in a book about a charismatic serial killer!) Kaufman and Libby ran test subjects through a number of creative scenarios that showed this kind of behavior alteration, but they don’t know how long the effect lasts (you can read more about their research here. Still, they believe that books we love enough to read and re-read will likely make a lasting impact on our lives.
One other interesting note: Kaufman says this phenomenon only applies to written works because when we’re watching a movie or TV show we’re positioned as spectators. It’s only while reading that we truly imagine ourselves as the character and therefore act accordingly.
For my fellow writers this is both a responsibility and an opportunity. Let’s make the most of it!