I am Spider-Man (at least for a little while)

Thursday, December 01, 2016
If you've ever cried or felt your heart pound while reading a book or watching a movie, then you've experienced what I call "reality blocking"--the process of becoming so engrossed in a story that you ignore your own feelings and adopt those of a fictional character. In the real world, nothing has happened, but your brain processes the information you see or read as if it were real, which, in turn, causes your body to react as if it were true. You "become" the character and see the world through his or her eyes.

Good writing focuses on shared emotions. Regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction, tapping into the emotions that make us human can improve your writing. Readers will root for the boy to get the girl of his dreams because we have all loved someone, and readers will empathize with the athlete who loses the race because we have all worked hard for something important, and suffered defeat. We feel the character's pain or joy.

So when I follow a fictional mother down a long, dark hallway toward her children's bedroom because she heard an unearthly noise, my fear increases with every step. She begins to sweat, and I begin to sweat. I relate because I worry that something bad might happen to someone I love. Because I care, I want to know what happens, and will continue to turn pages or sit through a movie that scares me.

This also explains why I care about alien invasion, Spidey Senses, or a wizard who casts away evil. None of these things will ever affect me (probably), so why am I not content to sit at home and pet my cat and work on a craft project? Instead, I willingly spend my time and money sitting in a dark theater, or curled up in a comfortable arm chair to experience a world that looks nothing like mine.

Through empathy, I can put myself in Spider-Man's shoes (does he wear shoes?) and think about what I would do in his situation. Would I feel guilty for Uncle Ben's death? Probably. I can relate to that emotion because I have experienced my own guilt and sorrow.

Audiences will care when they know why the main character cares. If there is no emotion behind the action, then we are just watching a guy in a spider suit. Although I will never spin a web from my wrist, I connect to his emotions and put myself in the center of the action, which makes me believe that I am Spider-Man (at least for a little while).

Here's a link for more information: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-psychology-fiction/201208/entering-anothers-experience

Mary Horner is a freelance writer, editor, and author of "Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing." She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--I love sad stories. If a book makes me cry, I enjoy it. Thanks to your post, I better understand why.

Thanks, and I will check out the link.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Sioux! I thought about the fact that books look so innocent, but the combination of words within them can evoke all kinds of emotions.

Margo Dill said...

This is why I love fiction. It is the emotions that I feel and how I connect to the characters. I find myself thinking about some characters in my day like I would a friend, and that has to be a sign of good writing. On a side note, you should have posed in a spidey costume for this post!

Mary Horner said...

I think that's why some fictional characters seem so real, and it takes a lot of effort to write them that way. Your idea about the Spidey costume is great, I wish I had thought of it!

Donna Volkenannt said...

Hi Mary,

This is so true.

It amazes me how fiction can be so real. I can get lost in a book for hours then wonder where the time has gone. Same goes for movies too. Just last night my hubby and I were watching the wonderful movie, "Brooklyn," which I checked out from the library. A few times I was sniffling and wiping my eyes and I believe my hubby shed a few tears as well.

Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

Renee Roberson said...

Donna, I absolutely loved "Brooklyn," too! I watched it on a plane and was so frustrated when we landed 10 minutes before the end that I had to rent it the next night.

Great post, Mary. I experienced a similar connection this week when I got sucked into the book "The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah. I kept having to put the book down because the experience of living in France during the German invasion of the 1940s was becoming so real for me it was heartbreaking. I'm currently working on a psychological thriller YA and that's my hope for the people who read it--that they will get sucked into the horror of being stalked by an acquaintance and having no one who believes it's really happening.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks for your comment, I also strive to be able to write in a way that sucks in readers, but I don't always succeed. I look forward to reading your YA stalking thriller!

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