Study Shows How Characters "Cross" Into Reality

Have you ever mourned for fictional characters that you weren't ready to stop reading about? Or wondered what your favorite character would do in any situation? You're not alone. Almost one in five readers find that fictional characters cross over into their real lives, according to a recent study.

Researchers at Durham University spoke to over 1,500 readers, 19 percent of whom reported hearing the voices of fictional characters even when they weren't actively reading. All book-lovers probably know the feeling: you can hear fictional characters talking as clearly as if there really was someone in the room — perhaps reacting to your own situation, or perhaps talking to other fictional characters.

More than half of the participants said that they hear characters' voices while they're actually reading — but according to one of the paper's authors, psychologist Charles Fernyhough, there's a specific phenomenon that can explain why some of us keep hearing their voices after we've put the book down. Apparently, readers of fiction are doing more than just processing the words and interpreting their meanings; they are actively recreating the worlds and characters inside their imagination. This leads to what Fernyhough calls a "experiential crossing": a character seemingly crosses over from the fictional world into reality.

Fernyhough has experienced this himself, telling the Guardian: “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."

Novelist Edward Docx claims that it is literature alone that can have such a powerful influence, because "it gives you the interiority of characters’ minds. 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.”

“Obviously it’s a form of madness," Docx concluded, "but then all fiction is a form of madness.”