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Vicarious life

Why do we read fiction? I think this is an excellent question because the way we answer it for ourselves can inform how we create character.

Is it to improve ourselves, entertain our work-numbed minds, pass the time, complete a bucket list of classics (probably the most dismal answer in this list), infuse our lives with drama?


I like that last one. Robert J. Ray in his great book on writing, The Weekend Novelist, said that we read for drama. Our lives are often diminished versions of what we had hoped for. Fiction is an anecdote.

We long for excitement fused with meaning.

Novels, with their dramatic backgrounds or set ups or characters, provide us the fascination we lack in mundane life. Therefore we read for drama.

Still, something is lacking. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Taking myself as my sole source of information, I admit that I do read for drama. But my motive is more personal than that.

What we really get from a novel

Perhaps I’m not typical, but I read to experience vicariously another person’s life. I do not want to just “watch” a drama. I am watching a drama, of course, but what I mean is that I do not want to be kept at arms’ length.

I want to experience the drama, and do so through the eyes of the major character.

If this is true for very many people, the implications are huge for the subject of characterization.

My thesis is that a major reason people read fiction is because they want a vicarious experience of life. 4-500 pages will do, thank you. I don’t need to escape myself for longer than that (and I would miss my husband and my cat terribly.) But when I pay $12.99 for my latest Kindle book (not that I think it’s fair to pay that much for an ebook–insert rant here–)  I do want to go somewhere and do something, or feel something, remarkable for my thirteen bucks.

Fiction delivers, and in surprising ways. Recent studies in neuroscience suggest that while we are reading our brains experience the story as though it were really happening.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. (From Your Brain on Fiction, The New York Times.)

If this is the case (and brain scans of people reading suggest that it is true) then what do we learn about writing from this?


For one thing, from this research using brain scans we learn that the brain responds more powerfully to metaphors that involve sensory images such as “lizard skin hands” or “a brandy-tinged laugh” than purely visual figurative language. Well, writing teachers have been preaching sensory description for a long time. Suddenly, I am a believer.

Spending time in his head

But the real lesson I take away is this: My major character (MC) (and all my POV characters for that matter) must be someone the reader may find it desirable to be. Or at least live inside of during their reading hours.

You must get tired of my “ah ha” moments, dear Writing the World tribe. But honestly, this was another one of those.

I’ve been wondering as I read novels lately why I enjoy some major characters and others leave me flat, or even annoyed. A recent novel, e.g., had a spy out in the cold (not in the game anymore) who wanted to be back in. Fine so far. But he grew whiny about it. He admitted to himself that he wanted to seen as an important player. Instantly I am annoyed by him. Why? Just because he has a flaw? But that is such a smarmy flaw. He wants people to admire his expertise. Call me judgmental, but that character lost me.

Another novel by the same author has an average guy enter the spy trade using only his journalistic skills. He makes dumb mistakes of tradecraft. But that’s fine. I still would like to be like this guy, able to deduce and take on the powers of greed. I’m enjoying being in his head.

Then take all those novels with perfectly nice MCs with a few flaws, and all those specific traits like eye color, horoscope, and fear of snakes. Do I want to be their heads? Such characters are not aversive, but do they give a vicarious pleasure? Not if they bring nothing into the reader’s life that the reader would love to (safely) experience.

You say that you are delivering this experience with the memorable and dramatic plot? OK, I believe you, but if you are not also giving me a pleasurable point of view to ride into your story on, I’m going to view your plot through a smeared glass. I want this extra thing: the chance to be this remarkable person. Vicariously.

What makes a remarkable person? Here we may differ, but as a writer, you would do well to consider whether your MC is–in your own estimation–someone worth living with vicariously for a week or so. They may have qualities like ingenuity, determination, altruism or courage. Or–as the pundits often say when debating who we are going to vote for for president–someone you’d really enjoy watching a football game with.

It’s all in how you ask the question

So the take home insight this week is:

How can you make your major character someone who delivers a compelling viewpoint, a heightened experience that takes the reader away from their boring selves?

I’m not saying I know how to specifically do this. Only that we must drill down and find that MC, and when we think we’ve found him, ask the question one more time: Does he deliver a remarkable vicarious experience?


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