Holly Davis works as an outpatient physical therapist in Chicago. She is engaged to a great guy (wedding date TBD) and is a fur mom to a pitty and two kitties. She began her writing adventures as a young child and has grown from writing fanfiction for Kingdom Hearts to writing stories of characters and worlds all her own. Her first novel, Ranokori Realm, is a stand-alone YA fantasy that she is currently querying to literary agents. When her brain isn’t coming up with multiple series ideas, she loves to read, watch anime, and pretend to stay healthy and fit (though we all know she eats peanut butter and chocolate every day).
Why Are We Drawn to Fantasy?
By Holly Davis
Most book lovers can say that they’ve been reading since a very young age. We had more time and ease to crack open a book and dive into a new world. We could read about and believe in fantastical worlds and characters because we played make-believe and had imaginary friends. Even though we’re older now, that child-like imagination hasn’t disappeared. We still long to escape from reality and lose ourselves inside a book. We enjoy spending time with fictional characters in fresh and new fantasy worlds.
One of the earliest ways in which man told stories was through fables. And they knew with those stories, they weren’t true. But, there was a moral to each fable which made these stories real for people, so they listened and learned. It’s still true to this day. Fantasy is the perfect outlet to place characters in situations that change us, that make us better people by learning from their trials and triumphs.
So why do you read fantasy novels? Here are some reasons:
- Escape to a world where anything is possible
- When you relate to a character, you step into their shoes and experience things you cannot do yourself
- The different takes authors make on mystical mechanics
- Magic doesn’t have to be explained
- Fills the desire for exploration and surprise
- Fantasy is as broad as the imagination
- Fantasy begins where science ends
- Expands our ability to think and wonder
- Explores greater themes
All three of these elements make up the appeal of the fantasy genre. You can keep the comforts of your childhood imagination despite having to follow the rules of reality when you close the book and return to real life.
The psychology behind fantasy
Turns out, people have a predisposed temperament that may be genetically based which draws them to read science fiction and fantasy (SFF). According to Paul Allen, a clinical psychologist, those who score as an Intuitive Thinker (N) aka Rational on the Myers-Briggs personality test go for SFF books because of their ability to conceptualize and theorize, conceive and extrapolate beyond what the writer has written. When they read, they have the ability to expand the world they’ve been presented.
The genre also draws in people who are introverts, who don’t follow the mainstream, or who feel alienated. As an outsider, SFF gives them a space to belong. Most SFF stories involve characters who wish for a brighter future and must solve conflicts. These stories draw out the emotions of its readers through the character’s struggles and triumphs.
So that brings up an important point.
Why do we respond to fictional characters in fantasy?
It all comes down to empathy, which comes from the right supramarginal gyrus of the brain. Abby Norman reveals that ‘in studies where this part of the brain was disrupted, participants reported finding it increasingly difficult to not project their own emotional states onto others.’
We empathize with our own family and friends during tragedy or unforeseen circumstances, trying to understand their situation, though we can’t completely know what they are experiencing. When we read fantasy, we can get inside the characters’ heads far easier because we already know the hidden details of their lives, which allows us to empathize with them.
Interestingly enough, neurobiology research has shown that when we read about a scent, the olfactory center of our brain activates. When applied to all five senses, a story can be enhanced and readers become fully immersed in the experience. If a writer’s prose contains many senses, we are right alongside the characters on their journey. Our brains light up as if we were really experiencing those things in real life.
The philosopher, Kendall Walton, likens this to the emotions we feel when watching a movie or reading a book, termed quasi-emotions. It’s why people read books about people even though they know the characters will die in the end, or knowing they will be scared, yet read it anyways. That is why people read books more than once. The experience isn’t cheapened by knowing what’s going to happen. The story gives us the same emotional punch because we are not in control of our emotions.
When we subconsciously take on a character’s traits and behaviors, this is known as ‘experience-taking.’ This occurs when the readers suppress their own identity and find themselves walking alongside that character in a fantasy book. When we favor escapism, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, this is ‘perspective-taking’. This happens on an unconscious level and can lead readers to “increased confidence, motivation and a greater level of comfort.”
Lastly, the Philosopher Tamar Gendler claims that we have two competing levels of consciousness—belief and alief. Belief allows us to differentiate fiction from fact. Alief is when our brains shut off the knowledge that fiction is not real. This allows us to read books, knowing that it’s fiction, but still enjoying the story anyways. It’s how people join fandoms and ship characters, because they are able to escape into those worlds where those characters are real.
No wonder we’re drawn to reading books in general!
The research behind this is truly fascinating, and I hope you found it enjoyable. I will leave you with a few quotes I found that truly encompass our pull to reading fantasy.
“The more rational the world gets, the more we demand the irrational in our fiction”
“Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives, a form of existential problem-solving.”
-Cody C. Delistraty
“Stories can also inform people’s emotional lives. Storytelling, especially in novels, allows people to peek into someone’s conscience to see how other people think. This can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them.”
-Cody C. Delistraty
“In these modern times, where most of us sit at computers or face a bland commute, fantasy books offer a chance to break out of mundane moments.”
Let us know in the comments below. Why are you drawn to fantasy? Is there anything new you learned about yourself after reading this?
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