A fifth of readers report characters from novels cropping up in their daily lives, hearing their voices even after putting books aside.
It’s a cliche to claim that a novel can change your life, but a recent study suggests almost a fifth of readers report that fiction seeps into their daily existence.
Researchers at Durham University conducted a survey of more than 1,500 readers, with about 400 providing detailed descriptions of their experiences with book. Nineteen per cent of those respondents said the voices of fictional characters stayed with them even when they weren’t reading, influencing the style and tone of their thoughts – or even speaking to them directly. For some participants it was as if a character “had started to narrate my world”, while others heard characters talking, or imagined them reacting to things going on in everyday life.
The study, which was carried out in collaboration with the Guardian at the 2014 Edinburgh international book festival, also found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents said that they heard the voices of characters while reading most or all of the time, while 48% reported a similar frequency of visual or other sensory experiences during reading.
According to one of the paper’s authors, the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the survey illustrates how readers of fiction are doing more than just processing words for meaning – they are actively recreating the worlds and characters being described.
“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.”
When they asked readers to describe what was happening in detail, the researchers found people who described fictional characters remaining active in their minds after they had put the book down, and influencing their thoughts as they went about their daily business – a phenomenon Fernyhough called “experiential crossing”.
The term covers a wide range of experiences, from hearing a character’s voice to feeling one’s own thoughts shaped by a character’s ideas, sensibility or presence, he continued. “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”.
It’s an experience that the writer recognises from his own reading of Virginia Woolf and contemporary authors such as Richard Powers and Ali Smith. “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.”
The results struck a chord with the novelist Edward Docx, who recalled reading JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager.
“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.”
According to Docx, fiction’s ability to let readers participate in lives other than their own is the thing that sets it apart from other art forms.
“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.”
For Fernyhough, who has published two novels as well as a range of nonfiction, creating a character who can touch readers is a real accomplishment.
“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.”
Writing a novel whose characters can escape into the real world does feel “a bit like writing software,” Fernyhough continued. “Or 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 compared the characters whose voices get into readers’ heads to 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.”