The Paradox of Fiction

By Brian Kaufman

Years ago, I came home from work to find my wife fussing in front of the refrigerator. I asked what was wrong, and she told me that the quart of milk she’d just purchased was missing. In cases like this, I’d learned to speak to my five-year-old daughter first.

Tiger was often behind such misadventures. My wife and I went to Tiger’s room and asked her if she might know where the missing milk was. The flushed, not-so-innocent face gave us our answer. She knelt down beside her bed, pulled back the covers, and there was the milk.

She’d filled her Barbie swimming pool with it.

“Why did you do that?” my wife asked.

“To feed the sheep,” Tiger explained.

“Sheep? Sheep?” My wife was incredulous.

Tiger began rubbing her hands together—a nervous affectation. “Well, I realize they’re just imaginary sheep . . .” One of Tiger’s parents was outraged. The other one bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

I mention this to introduce a philosophical dilemma known as the paradox of fiction, which asks, how is it that we care about fictional characters when they’re not real?

In their 1975 paper, Colin Radford and Michael Weston opened a can of worms by asking, How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina? 

The paradox they posed consists of three premises:
  1. People have emtional responses to characters and events in fiction.
  2. To be moved, readers must believe characters and events genuinely exist.
  3. Readers know these same things aren’t real.

All three statements can’t be true. (That’s why it’s a paradox.) If two of the statements are true, the third must be false. But in unpacking these three assumptions, we reveal some basic things about making fiction “work” that can be useful to a writer.

All three premises have come under attack by one philosopher or another. Those who believe that premises two and three are bona fide attack the first premise, denying that readers have genuine emotional responses to the characters. Radford himself thought that people’s emotional responses were “irrational, incoherent, and inconsistent” and failed to conform to the first premise in a meaningful way.

Others attack the first premise by saying that the reader’s response isn’t to the book’s character or events but, instead, a reaction to an equivalent experience of their own. Readers aren’t sad for Anna Karenina; they remember their own painful breakup (it’s a safe bet that everyone’s been dumped at least once). Still, others say that the emotion comes from playing make-believe, a mind game facilitated by the novel being read.

Those who think the first and third premises are true reject the idea that we must believe a character is authentic to care. To truly exist seems like a requirement with nothing to back it. In contrast, the other two premises can be reliably observed. For example, most readers can name a character or fictional event that impacted them emotionally. And most readers know the (tentative) difference between a novel and non-fiction.

There’s even a way to reject the third premise. Suppose readers have an emotional reaction to a book, and a genuine response depends on the narrative’s authenticity. In that case, they clearly can’t know that the novel in their hands is a work of imagination. You can almost buy that notion, given the number of people who think portrayals of historical events and people are accurate, having been put in print or on celluloid.

Odd as it might seem, the debate rages on, like Quisp and Quake (a shout-out to the older NCW writers).

So, what does all this mean? I think the various theories point out important things that writers can use. Things worth remembering:

  • Authors to elicit an emotional reaction to fiction. That is, in fact, a worthy goal. We want to make our readers laugh. Or cry. Or scream.

  • If readers are irrational and their emotions suspect, that’s a situation with which you can play. Writing horror or thrillers? Poke a literary finger into those fears and insecurities and dig around.

  • Readers are actually reacting to their own lives through the conflicts of fictional characters? Good. Let your themes and plotlines touch on widespread aspects of human behavior. Maximize the interaction between reader and author by knowing and acknowledging your audience. If they recognize themselves in your narrative, the story will resonate for them.

  • Readers forget that the book isn’t reality? Don’t dissuade them. Like the fourth wall, typos remind readers that what’s being read is only a novel. No clichés. No out-of-character moments or out-of-voice dialog. Don’t let your story jump the shark. 

  • Readers play make-believe, and your books are a vehicle for that game? Good, play along. Don’t disrupt the game (or the fictive dream). Keep your characters vivid and your settings vibrant, so the reader doesn’t have to work so hard to play.

As for the paradox of fiction and the attending debate, I’m amused by the kerfuffle. I also think my five-year-old daughter was pretty close to the truth. “I know they’re imaginary,” she said.

Real enough, though, to break out the milk.

Connection to Fictional Characters

Bonding to Characters

Making Character Relationships Real

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