Image credit: Thalita Carvalho
If I’m being honest, a recent study concluding that ‘losing yourself’ in a fictional character can directly affect your behaviour is not news to me. Researchers at Ohio State University have defined the phenomenon as ‘experience-taking’. I have been experience-taking for years.
As a lifelong bookworm, television addict and movie fiend, these are welcome yet unsurprising results. In social environments, I unconsciously collect mannerisms from those around me, so when a fictional element is added to the mix, my innate tendency to ape or mirror is powerless to its contagion.
Since we were children, many of us have directly emulated fictional worlds. Who doesn’t recall ‘playing’ The Babysitters Club, Captain Planet, any fairytale or even Grease (hola to all the Rizzos out there)? When we are adults, though, games take a back seat to socially aware role playing and the knowledge that art imitates life, and life imitates art.
Instead of dressing up and deliberately playing out any emotional affiliations with a character, I find that when I read, my regular actions automatically adjust. For example, while reading any Austen I find myself talking in long-winded, incredibly descriptive sentences … with a tinge of a British accent. Taking on the protagonist’s approach to social roles or interaction, my manners improve, I blush easily and even actively seek drawn-out, restrained courtships (note: this is yet to have paid off. Colin Firth, call me).
Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang aggravated my usual potty-mouth until I was swearing while completing the most average tasks – ‘I said Credit! No fucking cash out!’ – even though cursing was only implied in the text. As a stress sponge, I had to cease reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for a while as I began to feel listless and down, and each boring decision became dramatic and difficult (Get rid of my VCR altogether? How can I commit to such change?). I do the same with television programs or favourite movies – I’m often unaware that I’m utilising something as simple as a catch-cry in everyday life.
I do love this rather pervasive power that fiction wields upon our minds. There is something remarkable about the thrilling exclusivity between the world of the words and the characters as you know them. There is nothing I like more than reading on a crowded train and understanding exactly what the character is feeling, knowing that no one else on that carriage – not even the jerk reading over your shoulder – gets it like you do.
Like a child with their toys, I do become very attached to fictional characters, often discussing them in my everyday life as I would a friend (there have been times that I confused real-life friends’ actions with those of my fictional friends). I also have a tendency to imagine the characters are alive inside the book I have just closed, as if they are waiting for me to open the cover again. These attributes may make me a little more childish and much more susceptible to the concept of ‘experience-taking’, but it’s an experience I’m happy to take.
Stephanie Van Schilt is Online Intern at Kill Your Darlings.