Why Some Characters Linger, Even After We've Closed the Book

Which characters' voices have stuck with you through the years?. Agatalina/Shutterstock

What would Hermione Granger do?

You might find yourself wondering how Harry Potter’s most studious friend might handle a particularly heavy workload — or perhaps another fictional character has influenced your daily life. Do you summon Atticus Finch when facing a moral dilemma? Or perhaps your characters arrive uninvited, like hearing Holden Caulfield calling you a phony while you sip on a mocha frappe.

If this sounds like you, you're not alone, according to a new study published in the March issue of Consciousness and Cognition. Conducting a survey at the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival, 1,566 readers discussed their experiences while reading fiction in relation to characters' voices, including answering how often they'd hear a character's voice while reading, how vivid those voices were and if they experienced those voices when they weren't reading.

More than half of the respondents reported hearing the character's voice while immersed in a book — not surprising, even for a casual reader. However, 19 percent reported that these fictional characters stayed in their minds even after the book was closed, or as the researchers described these occurrences, when the characters "seem to cross the boundary of the storyworlds and accompany or 'stay with' the reader in real-world situations."

An 'experiential crossing'

These sorts of closed-book experiences, or "experiential crossings," resulted in readers noting that a character was so firmly stuck in their minds that the tone and style of their thoughts would be in that character's voice. Some even noted that sometimes the characters would narrate their lives, offering bits of commentary. Here's a sample cited in the study from a reader who was immersed in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway":

"Last February and March, when I was reading 'Mrs. Dalloway' and writing a paper on it, I was feeling enveloped by Clarissa Dalloway. I heard her voice or imagined what her reactions to different situations. I'd walk into a Starbucks and feel her reaction to it based on what I was writing in my essay on the different selves of this character."

For this particular reader, Dalloway was a companion who shared her thoughts on Starbucks coffee and the people milling around the store.

According to Charles Fernyhough, one of the study's authors, this is a sign of good writer. "Some of my most powerful reading experiences come when I feel that the author has tinkered with the software of my own brain," he told the Guardian, which assisted with the study. "I know I'm in the presence of a great author if she or he makes me notice things I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, because the voice and sensibility on the page is sharpening my attention and bringing details into the light, and because I'm starting to think like them."

Readers become writers

A woman reading in a cafe
Some readers can imagine what a character might think about a certain situation, even outside the bounds of the book. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Fernyhough and his co-authors liken this boundary-hopping between reader and character "as the counterpart of personifying processes occurring in the writers' encoding of fictional minds." In these instances, readers are becoming writers, extending a character's presence outside the binding of a book and into our world, be they a 51-year-old high society Londoner like Mrs. Dalloway or an Okie like Tom Joad from "The Grapes of Wrath."

Of course, not everyone has the same response to the same book. One reader may latch onto Proust's narrator in "Swann's Way" while another reader may just fall asleep. (In that reader's defense, the opening of the book spends a lot of time talking about sleeping.) As such, the researchers caution that their reported results will be different for every reader. However, they do point out that the responses "highlight a wide range of quasi-sensory qualities and simulatory dynamics in the reading process" that bears more studying in relation to character voices and readers' reactions.