The Psychology of Fiction

Reading, watching, writing

Liking for Stories

Why do we like some films and novels, but not others?

Although most people like fiction in films, television series, plays, or printed books, not everyone likes the same thing. How does this happen?

Among the reasons, I think, is that to be liked a story has to resonate with something within. This can be a preoccupation, a theme, a mythology, a way of thinking, a certain kind of fantasy. By fantasy, here, I don't mean anything denigratory, I mean a certain structure of thinking which is close to who we are and which is also close to who we would like to be. So, in romance novels, the fantasy is of being able to find someone attractive and-as many romance stories have it-to transform that person into someone who is capable of loving us. In a so-called action story or thriller, the fantasy is usually to right a wrong and punish a wrongdoer. Although the Bible holds that "Vengeance is mine ...says the Lord," in the cinema, vengeance is very often the audience's. Every time you enjoy such a film, it's an opportunity to look inside yourself to see this right-minded vengefulness as part of you. Inner themes or fantasies can be very individual. One person likes romantic stories, another is interested in seeing bad people get their comeuppance.

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Some films and novels seem to find resonances with a very large range of people. Casablanca is one of the most loved films of all time. Why is this? Once again, it seems to have to do with right and wrong. The first part of the film depicts people's attempts to flee the Nazis in Europe during the Second World War, by making for Casablanca from where they can leave for Lisbon, from where passages are still available to America. Then the film is taken up with a moving love story between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). In the film's single long flashback, we see them happy in Paris before it's over-run by the Nazis, having told each other they wouldn't ask about their previous lives. Ilsa fails to keep an appointment with Rick, to leave Paris with him by train, but now, in Casablanca, she appears with a husband, the freedom fighter, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried).

If Casablanca is a film you love, you will know that rather than resonate with the usual Hollywood fantasy that love conquers all, in which Rick and Ilsa would leave for Lisbon and go to live happily ever after in Illinois or Nebraska, Rick arranges for Ilsa to leave with her husband. He does the right thing. The reason we like the film is that it resonates with our belief, embedded in a deep and important fantasy which perhaps can motivate our lives, that doing the right thing is the right thing to do. Seeing someone act well prompts a particular kind of emotion, which Jonathan Haidt (2003) identifies as elevation. Amidst so many stories in the media of wrongdoing and finagling, which resonate perhaps with our fantasies of being able to get away with doing what we shouldn't, is it perhaps significant that for many of us, we also have strong fantasies of doing the right thing, which has its own accompanying emotion?

Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 275-289). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

 

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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