Reality in Fiction

In the “Paradox of Fiction” by Colin Radford, there are three premises brought to the table: (1) one can only be moved by something that exists, (2) fictional places and people do not exist, and (3) fiction can not genuinely, emotionally move someone, and to think that it can is irrational. These premises come from philosopher Kendall Walten, who, rather than saying there is a scale of which people feel emotion, says that when one reads or views fiction, one is pretending to be moved appropriately. Walten calls this quasi-emotion. Walten’s theory seems to make sense on the surface until one looks at ideas supported by fiction and ideas that create fiction. Ideas and thoughts are real things and thus are able to genuinely, emotionally move someone. 

Walden claims it is irrational to assume fiction can invoke real emotional reactions. He gives an example of Charles being frightened by a green blob in a scary movie coming towards the screen; Walden would claim that Charles is experiencing quasi-emotion and there is no actual fear, as Charles knows he is not in danger. Quasi-emotion is “To half believe something is to be not quite sure that it is true, but also not quite sure if it is not true” (Walton, 638). However, this is most likely not what is happening with Charles. Most likely the green slime blob has invoked some real fear in Charles, just not as much as a new story about murderer loose in the neighbourhood. Charles knows the green blob is not real, but this does not mean it does not create some actual emotion. 

The green blob can inspire actual emotion because the thought of it actually attacking people is frightening. Ideas and thoughts are real things and they are what create fiction. “Novel ideas come from right inside your head, either from memories of real experiences or from your imagination” (Novel Writing Help, 1). Any part of a memory can be inserted into novel, even a fantasy novel that is complete and pure fiction. Many authors are told to write what they know, and what they know come from thoughts of memories that get transformed into ideas. “You don’t have to write about your life literally. So long as what you write is emotionally true to your own experiences, the physical reality of the story (the characters, the setting, the events) can be totally made up” (Novel Writing Help, 4). One’s own experience and emotional reaction to it is real, even when placed in fiction. Who is to say a story about fairies is not based off humanities or a personal interaction with nature? 

This is not the only reason fiction is capable of genuinely, emotionally moving us. The brain actually responds emotionally to stories one can connect, sympathize or empathize with. Stories one can associate to real world events or stories one can associate with ideas they know well. There is a part of the brain the allows people to empathize with others’ plights and this includes the plights of characters in fictional works. How else could something like “Harry Potter” take on such a life of its own, and with such devotion to Hogwarts houses? Those who have read “Harry Potter” have connected with the characters plights and stories and wanted to make it their own. 

More than wanting to make the stories their own, those who read and write fiction see the world and character in their head. Every author and reader has an idea of what their characters and the world their characters inhabit looks like and how it operates. In essence, the authors and readers who have seen these worlds and characters in their heads, have actually seen these worlds and characters. 

But some still might ask, how could fiction—something that’s not real—stir up real emotions in us? It is made up and therefore should hold no emotional value. Fiction can stir up emotions in people because fiction is based on ideas, thoughts and memories, all of which are real. If something is real, even if only loosely, would it not then be reasonable to think it could genuinely, emotionally move people? Just the idea of someone getting sick makes one feel sad. It all comes back to empathy, sympathy, and association to reality, thoughts and ideas. 

Ideas are based on thoughts, which are based on memories and lived life experiences. If someone has been burned by a campfire, no one would blame them for being fearful of going near campfires, even if the likelihood of them getting burned is non-existent. The idea of getting burned is frightening. Why then are people looked at oddly for being frightened for a character who has to walk through fire to rescue someone from a dragon? Why is it unreasonable to fearful of the dragon  which is the source of the fire? If ideas come from thoughts and memories, which are real, ideas and the fictional world they create are real as well. Therefore, it is possible to be genuinely, emotionally moved by fiction—after all, it is real. 

 

Sources:

Chan, M. Steven. Meskin, Aaron. “Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology.” Walton, Kendall. “Fearing Fiction.”  Blackwell Publishing. 2008. 

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Paradox of Fiction.” 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/fict-par/ 

Novel Writing Help. “Where Do Novel Ideas Come From?” 2019. https://www.novel-writing-help.com/novel-ideas.html 

Podgorski, Daniel. “The Gemsbook.” “Why Stories Make Us Feel: Colin Radfords So-called “Paradox of Fiction” and How Art Prompts Human Emotion.” https://thegemsbok.com/art-reviews-and-articles/philosophy-articles-friday-phil-colin-radford-paradox-of-fiction/