I have been wanting to write about this since I started this blog. It is actually one of the reasons I started it: I wanted to write about getting drawn as deep into stories as I do, about being sad or worried, even anxious about what goes on in the lives of characters – I mean, they aren’t real, they do not exist, so how can it be that I keep dropping the papers I am correcting to read a few more lines of the new Cormoran Strike novel, Lethal White, to see if Cormoran and Robin will work together again and what will happen to Robin’s marriage, on the rocks from day one? When Vikings season 2 was airing and Rollo was in his bed of pain, his legs broken, I was frantic with worry that he may die, or be crippled. And last week as I was once again in the Chamber of secrets with Harry Potter and the basilisk – reading the novel for the fifth or sixth time, knowing perfectly that there are five more stories and a play in the saga after that, I still managed to fret a little.
Before one wonders, I do have a life: friends, a husband, cats, a job I love. When I was a child, though, stories were a world into which I sneaked from a gloomy school and an equally gloomy home in the long months before I could go to my grandmother’s for the summer. I usually escaped to The Wild West, which I recreated mentally from western films and comics. It may have begun that way. And anyway, I may be just a tad crazy.
But are we all mad, we who hope, fear and rejoyce for the events in imaginary lives? All those who shed tears for the sufferings of shadows on a screen, or lines on a page?
There is a scene in Vikings season 1 which gives me goose-bumps, every time. Even if I watch it twice in a morning at school, in different classes (it offers some interesting points of discussion when we study the Anglo-saxons and the Vikings):
And I get them every time I read The prince’s tale, in Harry Potter and the deathly Hallows. The moment when Severus Snape reveals what is in his heart to Dumbledore, and to all of us, often gives me more than goose-bumps:
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
“After all this time?”
“Always,” said Snape.
(Rights belong to J.K. Rowling)
We can be at Creakle’s school with David Copperfield, being terrified of being beaten, or with Elizabeth Bennett, feeling foolish having misjudged Darcy. We can feel happy when Gisla of Frankia finally realizes Rollo deserves her love, after having felt for him for three seasons and a half. Or we can be relieved that Cormoran Strike has been paid and won’t go bankrupt.
No doubt that writers know we need emotions, not necessarily because life isn’t meaningful enough, it is just that emotions, even these vicarious feelings coming from the imagined experiences of fictional individuals, make us feel more alive. Sometimes there’s some sadness that needs to emerge, and we do it by reading or watching something that will work. Vikings fans have posted compilations of the characters’ deaths on youtube, and it seems most people share my favourites, which are told in an elegiac tone that is very appropriate to stories of the ancient Germanic people: Thorstein’s and Siggy’s.
Thorstein is usually a slightly comical character, so his heroic demise surprises and moves us: we are being reminded that there can only been one appropriate death for a warrior, even one who is a bit of a buffoon sometimes. In Siggy’s case her visions, which may or may not be supernatural apparitions, as is sometimes the case in Vikings, make her brave death even more poignant.
(Rights to clips from Vikings belong to Michael Hirst and History Channel)
When neuroscientists discovered mirror neurons, they learned that these special cells in our nervous system allow us to put ourselves in somebody elses’ situation, to see what they see and feel how they feel. This also means that when writers create fictional characters they can give them an emotional and intellectual depth, because as they can imagine what goes on in their minds. I found all this in a short book by Edoardo Boncinelli: La bella e la bestia – arte e neuroscienze, which is, I’m afraid in Italian, but I’m sure there will be other works in English on the same topic. I thought it was a good explanation.
When we are immersed in the lives of fictional individuals, if the work is well done and if it resonates with who we are and the way our emotions work we can share their moods and their reactions to events, even when we’ve been there time and again: somewhere at Hogwarts, or on a cold hillside in Northumbria.
It goes without saying that there has to be a connection between us and the imaginary world we are visiting, but also, that not all fiction goes in that direction: in medieval romances kings and knights, ladies and witches are just narrative elements, and we do not adhere to what happens to them, which means that when they are adapted for the screen the screenwriters and have to pad them up, but it will be the actors’ job to give life to the figures they impersonate. With romances (including science fiction sagas like Star wars) the risk of having flat, unconvincing characters is always there. You watch Boorman’s Excalibur and will find Arthur (Nigel Terry) and Morgana (Helen Mirren) believable and satisfactory (not Nicholas Clay, as Lancelot, though). Then you watch Troy, and apart from Peter o’Toole and Eric Bana everyone else is as human as a Halloween mask.