The Psychology of Fiction

Reading, watching, writing

Emotions of Fiction

Why are stories all about the emotions?

To say that fiction is all about the emotions is probably an exaggeration, but not much of one. When we see a movie, we want to be excited, or amused, or to get out our Kleenex. When we read a novel, we want to be moved. Why should this be?

A few days ago I gave a reading and talk about my most recent novel, Therefore choose (click here). I talked about how in it, and indeed probably in all novels, three clusters of emotions are involved.

The first cluster of emotions, in time but not importance, is in the experience of the writer. Writing takes a long time. To write a novel can take years. The reason is that as one puts words out there onto the page, they aren't the words of the story. The story only comes into being through the process of writing, through reading what has been written, through thinking some thoughts one wouldn't otherwise have had, through changing what one has written, and so on. The first, and second, and tenth, sets of words that one externalizes are intermediate thoughts, steps towards the creation of the story. One needs to have something to keep at it, and that something is emotional. It's very personal to the writer: the urge that keeps one exploring the implications of characters and their situation as far as one can go. My novel, Therefore choose, is story of people on different sides during World War II. Its sources for me included emotions of having been born in London, England, just before the start of the war, of a childhood that included crouching in bomb shelters, of growing up in austerity, of wondering in later life what the war was like for my parents and their generation.

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The second cluster of emotions has to do with the characters. My novel is a love story, in which two male characters who are close friends, one English and one German, love the same woman. So there is also conflict, and the emotion of conflict is anger. Emotions are fascinating, perhaps because they are seldom straightforward. If you fall in love will you achieve togetherness, and will the love last? If you are angry will you destroy a valuable relationship? There's always more to understand about such emotions.

It's the third cluster of emotions that's the most important: the emotions of the reader. Without them there would be no story, because only in the mind of the reader (or viewer) does a story come alive. So the real question for me as a writer is not how to use my own emotions to drive a story, not even how to depict the emotions of characters. It's how to invite readers to experience their own emotions. When this works, it does so partly because of resonances of themes in the reader's life with those of the novel. It occurs when readers (or viewers) put aside their own concerns, and take on those of a protagonist. Then they can experience their own emotions in circumstances in which story characters find themselves. This is where the real emotions of fiction take place.

 

Keith Oatley is professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, researcher on the psychology of fiction, and author of three novels.

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