Why Do We Feel Emotions For Fictional Characters When They Don’t Exist?

Don’t you just love that feeling when you dive straight into the world of a book, becoming almost like a secondary character to the story that unfolds, feeling the character’s emotions as if they’re your own?

It’s only when we think more about the process of reading a novel that we realise the emotions that arise are for non-beings. We are feeling a story that doesn’t exist in the real, physical world and yet it feels as real as anything. Why is this? How is this? How is the brain capable of translating a fictional text into a real world inside our own minds? And why do we believe in it?

I don’t think there is an answer to any of these questions – not definitively – but I do think it’s interesting to reflect upon. I find that when I’m reading a book, I often lose track of time. It really is like entering a new world. But I also know that I become the world. Not just in my mind, but my emotions are intertwined with that of the characters.

I think perhaps this is down to humans being, at heart, social beings. Whether a character is real or not, we relate to them in some way. After all, the characters are written by real humans and often those real human authors slide parts of themselves into their characters. It is almost like a lens in which we see the author through the character, yet in our minds it is still the character, but it allows us to relate to another life wholly different to our own.

Perhaps we feel the emotions of a character as our own because we read to feel something – I know, on some level, I do. We read to find something to latch onto – something relatable, something meaningful, something real. We read to understand the human condition better – whether we realise it or not – or we read to see a different perspective. Essentially, we must read for the same reason we read a film or watch a TV show – they are almost one and the same.

The Theory of Mind says that reading improves empathy and I agree; reading a book is like meeting a lot of different people at a party except they are in their natural habitat and their thoughts are sometimes expressed and they’re unique and not real but could easily be real, if they were fathomed into existence.

Ultimately, our mind is capable of wild imagination. Reading a book is, at its core, simply reading words on a page, and yet we create this whole world in our minds – the way it looks, the way it feels – from these words. It is our capability to imagine that makes it so real. Without our mind transferring these words into a little film inside our head, perhaps we wouldn’t be so emotionally attached to the journey. Perhaps we wouldn’t really absorb any of it at all.

The truth is that reading is a truly unique experience. One book has millions of different versions inside the heads of every single person who reads it. And no one can enter that other experience. No one knows what it’s like to see those words through the lens of those eyes, because they only know their own. Reading becomes a personal experience. It has to be. We connect with it in the way that we want to connect with it, even if the link isn’t even really there. And I think we do that with a lot of things; we find ourselves in art because that’s how something becomes meaningful – when we can relate to it. It’s both self-indulgent and curious and sad and enlightening. It’s many things that can’t really be put into words.

And I think this post is mostly me typing out a load of my thoughts with no coherence to them whatsoever but, like reading, it’s just one single personal experience and to you it’s a whole other personal experience, but they all join to one point: the love of reading. And I think that’s pretty remarkable.

Why do you think we feel emotions for fictional characters?

I’d be interested to know what you think.

Let me know in the comments below!

15 thoughts on “Why Do We Feel Emotions For Fictional Characters When They Don’t Exist?

  1. I think it also has to do with our need to connect with others. Even if they aren’t real, if a story is written well, we believe it to be.

    If a story isn’t written well, I find it very hard, if not impossible to feel anything for the characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it is just our imagination that takes over when reading it, and also when we read a book we can get so engrossed in it that you can paint a picture of whats happening in your head, which makes it feel more real. I read “The curious incident of the dog in the night time” recently and I felt so much emotion for the main protagonist in the book!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true! I feel like I’m creating a film of the book inside my head as I’m reading it. And ooh that’s been on my list to read for a while now! Heard many great things 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I only choose to read books I think I’d connect with; I don’t read it if I don’t have the emotional connection with the concept of it. So I think we usually pick out books that we feel we will like and, by doing that, we are basically already deciding how we will feel about it. Of course, you can still not like it, but most books I have read, I liked because I picked them out and they connected to me from the blurb.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh interesting! 😊 Yes there definitely has to be some sort of connection for us to pick it up in the first place, although I’ve also had moments where I’ve chosen a book and then not connected in the way I thought I would


  4. What an interesting question! I have always thought this to myself. When I was in grade 8, a classmate of mine actually started crying over something that happened to a character in a book and it really made me realize how we connect to fictional book characters. Thank you for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Completely transported just reading this. Not incoherent at all. Reading is a way to transport ourselves. We allow our imaginations to thrive and find parts of ourselves in the characters and stories x

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and questions. I think we relate to struggles characters’ within stories have and the way they go about trying to sort them out. I find myself implementing new ways of problem solving after I read different books. It’s definitely a deeper experience to me than watching a film or TV series.

    When I play Dungeons & Dragons with my friends I try to inhabit my character so I can see the different perspectives people view the world from. We’re all different so being aware of that helps us to be more compassionate for the almost innumerable perspectives people view the world from. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you – and for sharing your thoughts too! That’s super interesting that you utilise different methods of problem solving depending on what books you’ve read. It’s amazing really, how books can have so much impact on the way we think and live our lives.

      That’s also a great analogy. Whether it’s reading, or role playing, or anything that involves characters – the more we inhabit the mind of the character, the more we inhabit the world and the emotions of someone other than ourselves. And it’s a very enlightening experience 😊 Thanks again for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

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