For readers who really dive into a book, it can be difficult to accept that the characters within are mere constructs of ink on paper.
Perhaps you’ve heard Jane Austen’s wry omniscient voice narrating the events of your life for days after you turned the last page of Pride and Prejudice (guilty!). Perhaps you have to remind yourself that Hermione Granger isn’t real and can never offer you personalized study tips. These fictional people seem real ― don’t they?
A new study performed by The Guardian and researchers from Durham University suggests that they are, in a way. The study found that, for 19 percent of readers surveyed, “the voices of fictional characters stayed with them even when they weren’t reading.” This included readers having thoughts in the voice of specific characters, experiencing narration of their life by a character, or simply having their own thoughts influenced by the tone or perspective of a character.
To be clear, the study did have a small and limited frame of reference. The research was carried out at Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014, and the nearly 1,500 respondents, nearly 400 of whom provided detailed responses, were drawn from a pool that might be more likely to be particularly passionate and imaginative readers. Perhaps the phenomenon of fictional people romping gaily through one’s consciousness is less common than this study suggests.
The results echo an earlier, smaller study from 2012, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that readers of fiction could come to identify so closely with a character that it could, at least temporarily, change their own beliefs and behaviors. In one experiment, subjects who read a first-person story about a student who votes in an upcoming election, despite obstacles, were significantly more likely to vote than subjects who read another story.
No wonder Fifty Shades of Grey can inspire thousands of women to demand more sexual dominance from their parters ― while reading, many fans of the book were likely feeling Anastasia’s excitement. No wonder millions of “Harry Potter” fans secretly longed for a letter from Hogwarts ― just reading the books was enough to feel bathed in Harry’s own feelings of long-awaited acceptance and joyous wonder.
So if you ever feel crazy because you find yourself carrying on a muttered conversation between yourself and Christian Grey (probably about the music of Moby), don’t. You definitely aren’t alone.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number and demographics of the study’s subjects. The post has been updated to correct this.