Caring Deeply About Fictional Characters

Question: What books have\r\nyou enjoyed reading recently?


Louis Menand:  Yeah,\r\n I read a book actually, this was\r\nkind of for business, but I really thought was great.  It’s\r\n called "Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?" and\r\nit’s by a professor at Stanford called Blakey Vermeule, and it’s an \r\nexample of\r\nwhat we were talking about earlier, which is trying to apply some of the\r\ndiscoveries of experimental psychology and cognitive science to novels, \r\nand\r\nparticularly ask the question why is it that people care very much about\r\n what\r\nhappens to a fictional character, given that not only have we never met \r\nthis\r\nperson, but the person doesn’t exist. \r\nBut we actually, we see a movie or read a novel, and the bad guy \r\ngets\r\naway with it, we’re pretty upset. \r\nWhy would we, why would we care? \r\nSo she has an explanation from evolutionary psychology, but she \r\nhas some\r\nother insights as well into what it means to read or what it means to \r\nidentify\r\nwith characters that have to do with the way we relate to other people.


And even though I felt the cognitive science part \r\nof it I\r\ncould take or leave, I thought that her manner of reading novels was \r\ngreat,\r\nit’s a wonderful book, and she just has a great voice as a critic and I \r\nfelt I\r\nwould follow her wherever she went.


Question: Have you ever\r\nfound yourself caring deeply about a fictional character?


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


Yeah, no, that’s part of why, I suppose, I suppose \r\neverybody\r\ndoes get attached to characters whether in movies or in stories, but I \r\nthink\r\nthat’s part of the reason you get involved with literature is because \r\nthere’s\r\nsomebody that grabs you about it and then you want to figure out why.  That’s part of what the job is, really,\r\nis to figure out what is it about this story or this character or this \r\noutcome\r\nor this style or this voice that gets to you.  What’s\r\n getting to you? \r\nWhat does it mean?  And\r\nthat’s really an interesting problem to try to figure out. \r\n So that’s what this book was taking a\r\nstab at doing and I just thought it was a pretty original and fresh and \r\nfun\r\ntake on the subject.

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

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