Do You Adopt Character Traits?

Character Traits: Photo of a man reading a book.This week for our How I Write series, my accountability group was asked, “There was an article a bit ago about how readers take on character traits of a favorite character from the book they’re reading. Do you do that with your own characters? Do you find yourself doing something your character would do?

I have to admit I was more curious about the article than thinking about the question itself. I may have tracked down the original article or one very similar, and I wanted to include it here for reference, so you could understand where my thinking on this topic was coming from. The article, “Psychologists Discover How People Subconsciously Become Their Favorite Fictional Characters” by Christine Hsu ran at the site MedicalDaily.com on May 14, 2012 and focuses on the phenomenon of “experience taking”.

The article concludes that in order for readers to make the connection to the character, details that help readers relate to the character need to be shown earlier rather than later in the story. Gee, as writers, don’t we hear that  all the time? This effect is why, suck the reader in, keep them in the story and you might also have a temporary effect on the reader’s daily life. And we can hope it’s a positive one!

So… Most people talk about a writer’s characters from the other direction. What real life experiences and what parts of your life do you put into your characters? Which are the autobiographical parts? But this question turns that concept on its head. What parts of our characters that we’re writing, do we reflect back into our daily lives?

I suspect that a lot of my new found courage and willingness to step outside of my comfort zones is a combination of those two things. I want to be more adventurous and more social, therefore, I write about those types of characters and in turn maybe exploring their lives they have inspired me to venture out of the safe zone. Other than that, I can’t think of any specific traits or characteristics that I’m consciously borrowing from my characters that I write.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could consciously (and I suspect that’s a key word here) pin point any characteristics that I’ve adopted from characters written by other authors. Do I think I happens anyway? Probably. Both in fiction and non-fiction. I mean, part of our job is showing characters learning and growing after dealing with huge-to-them experiences and readers read for the emotional experience, putting themselves in the protagonist’s shoes.

I also remember my husband telling me recently about something he read and it might have been the NYTimes opinion piece by Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction“. Apparently there are studies that show that when reading about someone doing an activity if it’s well described causes the same parts of the brain get used as when the activity is done for real. The article mentions relating words for smells to the memories in the same ways that actually experiencing the scent triggers. That’s pretty strong stuff…. vicarious experience is nearly equivalent to actual experience! Mind-blowing stuff. Makes you want to go read some more of those inspirational success stories, right?

If you didn’t go read those articles, I think you’ll find them interesting and thought provoking. The concepts should definitely make writers stop and think about their choices and whether they’re being morally responsible in their portrayals of their lead characters.


YOUR TURN: What do you think? Does it make sense? Think it’s a bunch of hogwash? What about the last book you read? Did you want to be more or less like the protagonist? Do you think you may have subconsciously picked anything up from them? Did you feel like you were vicariously along for the ride?

 

And if you’d like to read how the rest of my accountability group answered this question, you can find their blogs here:

* Alexia Reed * Kimberly Farris * Danie Ford * Emma G. Delaney

2 Responses to Do You Adopt Character Traits?

  1. As writers, we keep getting told that it is all about creating an emotional connection with the reader, so I suppose it’s not surprising that readers, and writers for that matter, experience emotion vicariously through the characters. That could be one of the reasons people become so passionate about their favourite books/characters. Interesting topic.

    • What I found interesting, Jillian, was that it’s not just emotion that’s experienced vicariously too. The 2nd piece linked talked about studies that showed how reading the word not just lit up the language center of the brain, but also another part associated with the physical manifestation of that word. So scents triggered olafactory responses and reading about movement of the body triggered motor cortex responses (down to the appropriate left or right appendage if noted in the text). But yes, pretty heady stuff.

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