The comments on Monday’s complaint about the hero in WATERSMEET facing insufficient consequences for her mistakes have gotten me thinking about the cognition of reading fiction.
Early in our blog, Emily posted about a study finding that fiction readers’ vicarious experiences of characters’ emotions can be observed in the brain. Emily was puzzled about why this is surprising, and so am I: we know that the subjective experience of reading fiction involves identifying with characters; we know that subjective experiences are reflected in the brain somehow; isn’t this finding inevitable? Or at least, wouldn’t it be far more surprising were this not the case?
Today I’m having a different thought on fiction cognition, inspired by also agreeing with what what Emily commented on the WATERSMEET post: I don’t begrudge other people their good fortune in life (well, except those people I already… grudge), but I hold fictional heroes to a higher standard of needing to earn my respect and their good tidings.
And I think this is common; TV writer Alex Epstein, whose blog and books I think are very smart, often stresses that luck and coincidences in storytelling need to work against the hero, not for them. Otherwise it feels like the hero (not to mention the author) is getting the easy way out.
I’ve always thought this was one of those ways in which the rules of fiction simply diverge from relating what would actually happen in life; I’ve remarked on THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN crossing a bit too hard into the “life really works this way sometimes” side of “semi-autobiographical” at the expense of it’s story. The logic of fiction ain’t necessarily the logic of the world.
One reason, I think, is a simple violation of expectations: good stories set up a challenge, two things that both seem necessary and yet incompatible, and then surprise you with how they resolve the contradiction. You read a story trusting the author that you’re going to get such a twisty, hard-fought resolution; letting the protagonist off easy violates this expectation by resolving (part of) the conflict without any such surprise.Now, though, I’m wondering if something else is going on in Epstein’s advice that coincidences and good fortune can happen, but only in the villain’s favor. My first year of college I read a fun book about cognitive biases by Thomas Gilovich, HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO. One point of Gilovich’s that stuck with me: he argues that our tendency to judge other people’s failures as reflecting their lack of effort and skill, while chalking up our own disappointments to bad luck, isn’t just egotism. It comes out of something real about our experiences: we have access to our own effort, and so any disappointment seems to occur in spite of this and therefore must be bad luck. Whereas with other people, we don’t necessarily see the efforts they put in, and their failure in and of itself is evidence that this effort must have been insufficient. (Maybe we’d even say that our arrogance is caused by, as much as it causes, asymmetries of information like this?)
Which brings me back to storytelling. I’m thinking maybe one reason we can accept bad luck for protagonists but good luck for villains only is that this is how we experience the world as being for ourselves. So, it’s not quite right that fiction just needs to be set up differently than real life; it’s that fiction needs to be like we experience life, not like it actually is. Emily’s post was about getting into characters’ heads; maybe the characters also need to seem like they’re in yours.
What do you guys think?