Important Truths

In this fascinating Chicago Tribune piece, Yale law professor Stephen Carter talks to Blakey Vermeule of Stanford University, a professor of English and author of the book Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?

There Vermeule combines cognitive theory, history, social psychology and a touch of Darwin to suggest that without fiction, we would have trouble making sense of the world. Narratives bring order to what we see around us, and characters put faces to what we learn. …

“I think this widespread fascination with fantasy shows that we do not in fact live in a secular age, rather we live rather amazingly in an age of shimmering enchantments, of heroes and villains and Gods and monsters.”

She’s noticed, in other words, that fandom’s deepest engagement seems to be with characters facing zombies and Sith Lords. She adds: “That these worlds are fictional and that we know them to be fictional is quite beside the point: the human brain is extremely easily fooled into believing things are true, often viscerally, even when we know in some rational sense that they are not.” …

“Fiction makers have gotten astonishingly good at defeating our rational override switch.”

They can pull this off, says Vermeule, because their creations “prime some deep religious intuitions and give them a habitation in a world that has grown so deeply skeptical and materialistic and wary of ideals.”

In her book, Vermeule contends that even stories we know to be invented help fulfill a need for narrative connection that may be wired into us. We can understand the world better when we can embed its various characteristics in a tale. But the tale, to work, has to offer personification. This was true in the days of ancient myth and is true now. It may be that our identification with the characters leads us to believe we’re on the track of important truths.

So in our encounters with fiction, we’re nevertheless searchers. We spend emotional energy on characters because we can pursue these deep truths even if they’re absent from our reality.