Caring Deeply About Fictional Characters

The Harvard critic recalls feeling genuinely anxious about how things would turn out for the hero of “The Magic Mountain.”
  • Transcript


Question: What books have you enjoyed reading recently?

Louis Menand:  Yeah, I read a book actually, this was kind of for business, but I really thought was great.  It’s called "Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?" and it’s by a professor at Stanford called Blakey Vermeule, and it’s an example of what we were talking about earlier, which is trying to apply some of the discoveries of experimental psychology and cognitive science to novels, and particularly ask the question why is it that people care very much about what happens to a fictional character, given that not only have we never met this person, but the person doesn’t exist.  But we actually, we see a movie or read a novel, and the bad guy gets away with it, we’re pretty upset.  Why would we, why would we care?  So she has an explanation from evolutionary psychology, but she has some other insights as well into what it means to read or what it means to identify with characters that have to do with the way we relate to other people.

And even though I felt the cognitive science part of it I could take or leave, I thought that her manner of reading novels was great, it’s a wonderful book, and she just has a great voice as a critic and I felt I would follow her wherever she went.

Question: Have you ever found yourself caring deeply about a fictional character?

Louis Menand:  Sure, of course, yeah, most of them.  Hans Castorp probably, hero of "The Magic Mountain," when I was a kid I read that, I mean, not a kid, probably about 20, and I remember being, like, deeply invested in that character.  I don’t even know why anymore, but I remember feeling it really mattered to me how things came out for him.

Yeah, no, that’s part of why, I suppose, I suppose everybody does get attached to characters whether in movies or in stories, but I think that’s part of the reason you get involved with literature is because there’s somebody that grabs you about it and then you want to figure out why.  That’s part of what the job is, really, is to figure out what is it about this story or this character or this outcome or this style or this voice that gets to you.  What’s getting to you?  What does it mean?  And that’s really an interesting problem to try to figure out.  So that’s what this book was taking a stab at doing and I just thought it was a pretty original and fresh and fun take on the subject.