Feeling for the Fictional

Brandon Watson and Kyle Cupp both explore possible solutions to the “paradox of fiction”:

We human beings read, watch, and listen to a lot of fiction. We know that it is fiction. But we have emotional responses and attachments to the characters. So, according to Colin Radford, who first put it forward, this shows that there’s something incoherent in our emotional responses: we feel for things we know don’t exist.

The alternatives they explore are primarily philosophical responses to a (from their perspective) philosophical problem; I particularly like Kyle’s suggestion of self-understanding as “narrative entities”—a category into which fictional characters would also fall.  But as someone who is both a student of literature and who has, at times, attempted, in fits and starts of varying degrees of success, to dabble in the craft of fiction, I can’t help but view the paradox of fiction as a practical question as well as a philosophical one.

Fictional characters and situations don’t merely arouse an emotional response; they arouse an empathetic response.  This latter is not necessarily restricted to the character who causes the emotion: that is, a given character might anger us—but our anger is a response to those whom he or she is harming rather than to his actions in and of themselves.  As an example, my emotional reaction to Jack Boughton (of Marilynne Robinson’s Home) is, at times, provoked not by any connection to or feeling for him, or frustration at his actions, but because of empathy with his sister and father.

But here I’ve just restated the initial paradox in different terms!  Fine, the cause of my emotional response to a fictional character is not that character—but it’s empathy with another fictional character.  We’re still in the realm of non-reality—except, from the perspective of fiction itself, I’d posit, it’s something different.  Fiction doesn’t present the unreal; it presents the possibly real, something balancing precariously between the real and the non.  (This holds, it should be said, for fantasy, science fiction, and other “genres” as well as in realistic or literary fiction; they just go about it, as is the case in variation between individual works, in different ways.)

We empathize with fictional beings not despite their unreality, but because of their possible reality.  Not because I see parts of people I’ve known in Jack Boughton, or portions of my grandfather and great-grandfather in the Reverends Boughton and Ames, but because, even if I didn’t—if they were the elderly High Priests of the Cult of Xytonine on the Planet Vsfdsjghdsjgh and had never heard of Jesus or grace or Heaven or Hell—the characters and the narrative offer and react to their own subjective, individual experiences.  While the prodigal son and the longing father may be types, and while we all may have known or not known or share, no two are alike.  Their experiences, their reactions, their perceptions all differ.  The very particulars that preclude the true reality of the story provide for the possibility of its reality.*  The reaction it provokes is somewhere between This could be a man and There but for the grace of God

None of this does, or presumes to, supersede by necessity any of the more philosophical theories offered in the posts that provoked this one.  Nor does it fully solve any paradox; it targets more the how? of fiction than the why? of our responses.  But I’m not entirely certain the two can be fully separated when considering the question that began this discussion.  While it is in part a philosophical question, it is also a question about fiction and art, and artifice and craft.  Looking at the artifice itself yields complementary possibilities.

*Is this the space where the truth that can be found in fiction lies?

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3 thoughts on “Feeling for the Fictional

  1. I agree that fictional characters arouse an emphatic response, and I think there’s something to their being possibly real that elicits our empathy. We’re creatures of imagination and expectation, and we expect the imaginary to be real. Writers and other artists do just that: they create something imaginary that takes on a kind of real existence. To my mind, the crew of the Pequod are real, just real in a difference sense. “Possibly real” works, but I think it may be even more than that.

    Branching off my narrative theory, I observe another a similarity between real and fictional people in that in encountering each, I am in a sense encountering an idea of who each person, real or fictional, is. My emotional responses to people have a lot to do with my ideas about them, and sometimes, when my ideas are inaccurate, my emotions are unwarranted but nonetheless present because I have an idea that arouses particular emotions. So whether I’m responding to real people of fictional characters, I’m responding to my ideas of who they are.

    Thanks for the link!

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  2. Of course we can have feelings for fictional characters. I can be quite upset about the fictional version of myself who got eaten by a tiger because he was wandering around outside the cave at night. I can be very happy for the fictional version of myself who looked in a different place than usual and found a new berry bush.

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  3. Pingback: Notable readings of the day 06/17/2011 « Pro Bozo Publico

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