There’s more to fiction and fantasy than meets the eye

By Jamie Ellis, 2019 Alumni.

I believe that one of the best things about being human is our ability to be creative and escape from our realities. You can come from any walk of life and still find solace in reading a wonderful book or watching a brilliant movie. And you don’t have to be a media critic to find your own definition of wonderful and brilliant – there’s a story out there somewhere for pretty much everyone.

And inside these stories, we find characters that we kind of fall in love with. Of course, we can hate a character just as easily (*cough* Dolores Umbridge), but the fact that these people, these completely made up, non-existent characters, can find their way into our hearts just as if they were right here next to us, is pretty weird when you think about it. This is perfectly pronounced when a simple image taken from a powerful movie scene can elicit powerful emotions…or put simply, make a grown adult cry as if they were seeing it play out for the first time.

Arguably the most heartbreaking cinematic moment of all time from the movie “The Lion King”. Disney.

But after all of my years of reading and watching fiction, and laughing and crying at this fiction (sometimes very inappropriately, like on the train…) I’ve come to wonder why it is that we tend to get so attached to these narratives. When I’m inconsolable over a plot twist or a death of a loved character, I have to pinch myself and chant over and over ‘It’s not real! It’s not real! It’s not real!’

So why does it feel so extraordinarily real?

Current research suggests that the extent of our emotional attachment to our fictional worlds relates to how empathetic we are, and also that our levels of empathy can change based how emotionally connected we are to what we are reading or watching. So if you are a naturally empathetic person, you are more likely to connect deeply to the fictional worlds you interact with. We also tend to feel fondly towards characters if they are super relatable, making it easier for us to project our feelings onto them and want them to find their happy endings.

There are also studies suggesting that the reason we involve ourselves so much in these narratives is to draw parallels to our own lives and help us make sense of the madness that can sometimes take over. We can learn from these characters and their situations vicariously, whilst enjoying the experience of escaping from reality and stimulating the mind.
It therefore seems that enjoying fiction is more than just ‘passing time’ – it can help you build your social skills and grow empathy.

Humans love being challenged, so when faced with a controversial topic or decision embedded within a book or movie, we are often left discussing theories and pondering questions long after the last page has been turned or the last credit has rolled.

The classic for me is asking myself “what would I do if this was my situation?” and these thoughts can keep me occupied for days, if not weeks. I recently read the book ‘Me Before You’ and followed it up quickly with the movie – I think I’ve talked about it every day since, and I got my best friend to watch it, somewhat selfishly, so we could ‘experience it together’. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, give it a watch if you feel so inclined.

Image result for louisa and will at the wedding me before you movie

Louisa and Will dancing in the film “Me Before You”. Warner Bros

But that’s what I find so amazing about these fictional worlds we create for ourselves – we can get so immersed, feel true emotions and connections to the plots and the people in ways that can actually change us. The best movies and books might not be the best critically acclaimed pieces, but if they can leave you feeling joyful, devastated, terrified or deeply thoughtful, then I think they’ve done their job.

Whatever way you choose to consume fiction, there was probably some point in your life when you were emotionally moved by the stories and the characters. So many of us grow to love and adore these narratives, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re into romance, horror, science fiction or action – or all of the above – because there’s some intrinsic quality all fictional stories hold that keeps us coming back for more.