The Psychology of Fiction

Reading, watching, writing

How Stories Influence Us

The best stories don't persuade, they ask what you think

There are many kinds of social influence. A parent may coax, an employer may demand, a politician may exhort, an advertiser may suggest. In forms of this kind one person knows what another should think or do. But what about social influence in which people are not trying to persuade or control?

These are more rare, but perhaps just as important. Here is how the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it.

"The indirect mode of communication makes communication an art in quite a different sense than when it is conceived in the usual manner ... To stop a man on the street and stand still while talking to him, is not so difficult as to say something to a passer-by in passing, without standing still and without delaying the other, without attempting to persuade him to go the same way, but giving him instead an impulse to go precisely his own way" (1846, pp. 246-247).

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I can think of three kinds of communication or influence of this kind. One is love, for instance of a child, a friend, or a sexual partner. One is a certain kind of psychotherapy. And one is fiction.

In the better kind of fiction, the author is not trying to persuade. He or she is inviting you towards perceptions of some aspect of the world, perhaps from the points of view of more than one character, and asking you: "What do you think?" ... "How do you feel about this?"... "What would you do?"

Writers are sometimes asked, "Who do you write for?" Some say, "I write for myself." One knows what they mean, and in a sense they are right. But better would be if they found themselves writing for another, perhaps some particular other, a loved one or an editor, a small circle of friends, an imaginary someone. And, just as when we read fiction, we can enter into the life of a character, become that character for a while, so as a writer, with the words on the page one can inhabit the minder of the reader.

Writing fiction is not having a story in one's head and putting it down. Perhaps some writers write like that. But the large majority go through many versions, scenarios, drafts, sets of possibilities. Each time they externalize something, they can then become the reader (become their editor or friend perhaps), and read it, see how it sounds, wonder what it seems like, think what thoughts it prompts and feelings it elicits in the reading of it. Paper and computer screens are not just to record or communicate. They are to enable one to enter the mind of the other, and to enable one to think.

Søren Kierkegaard (1846). Concluding unscientific postscript (D. F. Swenson & W. Lowrie, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (Current publication1968).

Keith Oatley & Maja Djikic (2008). Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27.

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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