Since we’re all Sparklers and self-proclaimed nerds of the highest caliber, it’s no surprise to us that fictional universes can be life-changing. Who here sobbed at the end of The Book Thief? How many of us started fist pumping uncontrollably when Gryffindor won the House Cup in The Sorcerer’s Stone because Neville BAMF’d it up? Let’s face it—if we said fictional characters don’t have a massive stranglehold over our emotional stability, we’d be lying.
But did you know that fictional characters can have a subconscious impact on our behavior as well? (So if you seem to be hunting small animals, outrunning fireballs and kicking butt lately, you have Katniss to blame.)
Well, no. It’s actually more subtle than that (so if those things are happening to you, check and see if your life is an action movie and we’ll go from there). Science says it has to do with something called “experience-taking,” which means that you identify with a particular character and subsequently take on certain facets of their personality and beliefs. Let’s say you identify with Aberforth Dumbledore—well then you, kind reader, might begin exhibiting Aberforth-like qualities in real life, flinging goat poo even more joyously than you had before.
After reading stories, participants were asked to measure their ability to identify with a character, and their behavior was monitored for days afterward. One experiment explained that people were more likely to vote after reading a story in which they identified with a character that also voted. This would be infinitely more exciting had the people been more likely to buy a unicycle and then roundhouse kick a grizzly bear after reading about a character who did those things, but I understand that scientific findings demand plausibility, and also that this is why I’m not a scientist.
If it sounds disturbing to you that we could lose parts of ourselves in favor of the behavioral qualities of someone who doesn’t even exist, fear not—it’s a temporary phenomenon and doesn’t even happen to everybody. (I found this disappointing, because I thought I had finally discovered a way to become Luna Lovegood.) You’ve got to be able to relinquish your self-identity, in a way, and really submerge yourself in the fictional universe. An experiment showed that college students were much less able to undergo experience-taking when they were reading in front of a mirror, presumably because they were constantly reminded that they were not Luna Lovegood and then wept tears of anguish.
It’s been suggested here that immersing yourself in a novel actually instills a sense of belonging and connectedness that is crucial to life satisfaction. Experience-taking has also been proven useful in decreasing racism, homophobia, and stereotypes in general.
As if we needed any more evidence that books are basically the definition of awesome.