What you bring and what you take away

Zoë Sharp

It’s the goal of any writer to engage the reader in the story to the point where they forget just about everything else. One of my biggest thrills has always been receiving emails or comments from people that go something along the lines of: “You cost me a night’s sleep—I just couldn’t put the book down!”

Trying to create characters that readers can sympathise or empathise with, be repulsed or engaged by, is what we strive for. People tell me they’ve cried over some of the things that have happened in my books. I confess I’ve shed a tear or two myself while reading something that I can really connect to on an emotional level.

But it seems there’s much more to it than that.

Research by the Ohio State University has recently identified what they call “experience-taking” from works of fiction. Basically, this is what happens to people who find themselves closely identifying with and responding to the emotional thoughts and beliefs of characters. In the right circumstances, experience-taking may lead to real changes—albeit temporary—in behaviour and attitude.

In one study carried out by the university, seventy male heterosexual college students were asked to read a Day In The Life Of story about a fictional student. There were three versions of this story—one where the character was revealed to be gay early on in the narrative, one where this reveal happened late in the story, and one where the main character was heterosexual.

The results showed that these test readers reported higher levels of experience-taking from the version in which the sexual orientation was revealed later rather than earlier. It seems that if the students knew almost from the beginning that the character was not like them, it prevented them from really identifying with that character and experience-taking. But those who learned this fact late were just as likely to experience-take as those who read the heterosexual version.

And not only that, but they also reported what is described as “significantly more favourable attitudes towards homosexuals”. Similar results were recorded if the character was of different racial background to the student readers.

Experience-taking can have other subtle side-effects, according to Ohio State. Another experiment involved a story about a student encountering various obstacles—such as car problems, weather, long queues—on his way to vote. The different versions varied by having first-person or third-person narratives, as well as having the student attend either the same university, or a completely different one.

It possibly won’t surprise you to learn that the first-person account by a student from the same university had the highest level of experience-taking.

But it may surprise you to hear that this experiment was carried out on the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections. The participants were all eligible to vote, and when questioned later it was revealed that sixty-five percent of those who read that first-person/same-university story voted, compared to only twenty-nine percent who’d read a different version.

But experience-taking doesn’t happen every time you sit down to read. It only happens when the reader is able to fully immerse and lose themselves in the story, including to a certain extent putting aside their own identity while they’re doing so.

In one example, students were unable to experience-take if constantly reminded of their own self-image by the introduction of a mirror in the cubicle where they were reading. In these instances they were more likely to “perspective-take” instead, meaning they could understand what the character was going through, but without losing sight of their own identity.

Nevertheless, the university concluded that experience-taking could be very powerful because it was an unconscious process.

This information was particularly interesting to me as I write a first-person narrative with my Charlie Fox books and people have always told me how much they identify with the character. Charlie is a survivor, who’s come through some nasty experiences and developed inner strength from them.

I’ve always written primarily to entertain. But if people can take something of this inner strength of character, this determination not to be a victim, to walk tall and equal in an unequal world, then my work here is done.

What about you, ‘Rati? Have you ever found yourself experience-taking or perspective-taking from books you’ve read? Or books you’ve written, for that matter?

This week’s Word of the Week is eidolon, meaning a phantom or apparition, a confusing reflection or reflected image. From the Greek eidos form, from idein (aorist) to see. Also with the same derivation is idol, which has the archaic meaning of a phantom or a fantasy.

Finally, just to let you know that fellow ‘Rati PD Martin has a brand new book out today. HELL’S FURY, book one in her new spy thriller series. Buy it today for $3.99 or £2.55

21 thoughts on “What you bring and what you take away

  1. Tammy Cravit

    Thanks for sharing this, Zöe – fascinating research!

    As a reader, I tend to find maximum enjoyment in mysteries that share one key characteristic: Their main characters (especially women) get themselves out of trouble without doing the "oh poor helpless me, I shall curl up into a ball and passively await rescue" routine. Sure, our characters need help sometimes, but they never stop ACTING on their own behalf. Your books are a prime example of what I'm talking about, of course, but I could name others.

    It's fairly clear to me that this bias of mine is rooted partly in my general view of myself as a woman – I'm lusting after a t-shirt from ThinkGeek.com that says, "self-rescuing princess", which describes my attitude well. And partly it's that, having once survived a violent assault where submission was the only choice available to me, I'm…strongly motivated, let's say…to avoid being in that position again. That terrifying, soul-crushing moment when the mind says "this IS going to happen to you, and there's absolutely nothing you can do to stop it" was far more traumatic than anything that came after it.

    As a writer, these are the types of characters I try to write, too. I definitely identify with my heroines, and I hope my readers do too.

  2. Lisa Alber

    This is fascinating, Zoe. Now I'm wishing I wrote in first person! I tend to write in multiple third.

    You know how you hear about writers who don't read fiction while in the midst of their first drafts, for fear that writing styles or etcetera will rub off on their own prose? I wonder if this is a subset of the experience-taking effect…

  3. David Corbett


    If I'm not mistaken, this work is either by or a follow-up to the research of Lisa Zunshine at OSU (my esteemed alma mater, of thee I sing). Her book WHY WE READ FICTION is a treasure trove of insights like this.

    Her main argument is that characters arise from an atavistic functions of the human species to assume mental states within strangers so we could judge what their motives were — whether they were trustworthy, potential friends instead of enemies. She calls this the Theory of Mind, and it's interesting — but nowhere near as practical as some of the experiments you've mentioned.

    I'll have to hunt up more of this research. I have to admit, I've resisted first person mainly because multiple third just feels more natural to me. But there are editors — like my editor at Penguin — who instinctively ask: Could this book be in first person? They believe so wholeheartedly in that intimacy that first person provides.

    And I agree with every single reader of yours who's felt that deep empathy with Charlie.

    Great post, my dear. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.

  4. Sarah W

    I find it difficult *not* to glean experiences or perspective from stories, fairy tales to Mark Twain, Shakespeare to Stephen King, Doyle to Sharp, Corby, Harwood, Sokoloff, Corbett (Buckeye though he be), Hayes, Martin, Schwartz, etc.

    Isn't that what stories are for? To build our own selves as well as our cultural strata?

    I usually write in third person because, as a historical essayist, I'm used to avoiding the I — and in fiction, I like to see each character through the eyes of the others. But I did switch my first drawer novel to first in the second draft–it feels better that way (though it still definitely belongs in that drawer). And I have another pre-coalesced story (ie, a small pile of loosely-related scraps) that seems to want to be in first . . . we'll see what happens.

  5. Allison Davis

    I love books that give me a take away , add a crease to the brain, make me clean my room, or go for a long run. Like when I watch GI Jane each time before I go to trial, it does the trick for getting me focused and pissed off enough to be an effective trial lawyer (but you have to do to the push ups). Charlie Fox is definitely one of those characters, although sometimes I take an ibuprophen in sympathy she gets beat up so often. And when I write, while my focus is telling the story, it is also strongly focused on the compelling character, who will move you, just like a good friend who's finer qualities you want to imitate. I don't think it has to be in first person to evoke that emphathy or connection, as I have felt it in third person, but it does take a strong character.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa
    Write in your own voice and ignore anyone else who tries to persuade you otherwise—me included! I’m writing my latest WIP in multiple close third. Of course, I’ve no idea how that’s going to work out for me yet …

    I’ve always read continuously, regardless of whether I’m writing or not. These days, I’m writing most of the time, so if I forego my reading, I’d never get any of it done.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David
    The two names I had connected with this project were lead researcher Geoff Kaufman, and Lisa Libby, who co-authored the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    Glad you enjoyed the post, and what a fascinating argument about experience-taking being a kind of defensive mechanism.

    And thank you for the kind words about Charlie 🙂

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Well put—and thank you!

    I did try to write Charlie in third-person initially, but she just refused to speak to me that way. I soon as I swapped to first-person, she began to open up. I want to attempt a trilogy this year, and that’s going to have to be third-person because of the way the plot unfolds, but still …

    I like your comment about avoiding the ‘I’ in historical essays. I’m researching into various forms of Buddhism at the moment, and one school of thought says that only when the sense of ‘I’ is forgotten can an individual take the path to Nirvana.

    Although it won’t be the same without Kurt Cobain … 🙂

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison
    I got that exact same pissed-off vibe from GI Jane. Now I have visions of you doing the push-ups, but I do hope you don’t go for the radical haircut as well!

    I’ve tried not to be too cruel to Charlie physically in the next book, but she’s always going to take some knocks. It goes with the territory. It’s how she comes back from them that counts, I think.

    Close third can be as intimate as first sometimes. But rules are there to be broken 🙂

  10. lil Gluckstern

    I think the best books draw me in and have me identifying with protagonist, as well as feeling sorry for them when they get beat up 🙂 I thing that the strength of women in books and movies is resulting in a circular growth of how women think of themselves. We became open to seeing strong heroines, and we delight in seeing a strong woman kick butt. I, personally, haven't met a woman who doesn't carry some anger from the good old days. I still hear stories of the double standards and cruel expectations that follow women around. I'll never be Charlie, but I can feel like her.

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil
    What a beautiful sentiment. Thank you so much. Yes, life constantly throws up double-standards and medieval attitudes. I've recently bought a car, and got pretty damn frustrated by being treated like a flutter-brained idiot who wouldn't be able to spot major faults when they were staring me in the face.

    Charlie would have kicked them seven ways to Sunday. But at least I have the option to come home and write a good ruckus instead. Writing gives you the opportunities to have your characters say the things you would have said, if only you'd thought of them at the time.

    Oh, if only life had a copyediting phase 🙂

  12. Pari Noskin

    What a fascinating post!
    I know that in writing certain short stories or books, I've come away from them thinking I've lived through a certain character's experiences. So as a writer, my answer is "yes!"

    As a reader, I'm sure it has happened. I think that's part of the joy of being swept up in a story and losing track of time, of everything, but what you're visualizing in the moment.

    AND congrats to PD!!

  13. Tammy Cravit

    [ Trying this again because my previous comment got stuck in spam filter purgatory 🙁 ]

    As a reader, I definitely experience "experience-taking" from the books I most enjoy, which tend to feature female characters who are strong, independent, and who don't just wait passively to be rescued. Partly this is because that's the kind of person I try to be, and partly it's because of a previous encounter with violence. For me, that moment when the thought entered my consciousness that "this is going to happen, and there's nothing you can do to stop it" was far worse than what came after. So, I dislike the "shrinking violet who waits for a man to rescue her" trope. That's not to say female main characters have to be mini-Rambos, but they do need to be determined and willing to be responsible for their own welfare. (There's a T-shirt I've seen that says "self-rescuing princess" – this is the kind of female MC I'm drawn to).

    As a writer, these are the kinds of characters I strive to write. I think I'm moderately successful at it, but of course it's not my opinion on that score that matters. 🙂

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Pari
    I find the same thing, and I think this is possibly why I prefer my heroes to be heroic rather than blunder around in the dark and eventually stumble onto a solution to the problem. Yes, luck will always play a part, but I want to appreciate skill as much as luck.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tammy
    Hurrah! Glad you managed to beat the anti-spam filter into submission.

    I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences Unless you’ve come directly face-to-face with violence you never know how you’re going to react or how it will affect you afterwards. It’s been the process of exploring this with Charlie that’s been one of the most interesting things about the character for me. I hope that continues to shine through in your writing 🙂

  16. Greg James

    Hi Zoe,

    I think what makes the writers who have most profoundly affected me as a reader stand out is when I have experienced a sense of connection and identification that is best described as "I thought I only thought or felt that way, wait, this person does too." As important as being entertaining is in order to initially engage the reader, I think it is also important to write in a way that seeks that same sense of connection. That then leads to the e-mails and reviews where people say you've touched them, moved them, changed their perspective, open their eyes and so on. I've had a few of those and, as much as we are in a business, money can't buy that feeling where you realise you've had an impact on another human being's life.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Greg
    “That then leads to the e-mails and reviews where people say you've touched them, moved them, changed their perspective, open their eyes and so on. I've had a few of those and, as much as we are in a business, money can't buy that feeling where you realise you've had an impact on another human being's life.”

    You have so nailed it with this comment, my friend 🙂

  18. PD Martin

    Fascinating research, Zoe! And I'm one of those people who doesn't like to read while writing a first draft because of what I call voice and fictional world 'bleed'. So I guess I'm a big experience-taker. My suspension of disbelief is also huge. I'm a story teller's dream 🙂

    Anyway, my Sophie books are in third and interestingly (David) my editors asked if I'd consider switching to third! And I know a few readers hate 1st person. But each to their own and as you said, Zoe, you need to write the story however seems right to you.

    Thanks again for a brilliant post. And a huge thanks for the plug 🙂

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Phillipa, you're very welcome!
    I'm very willing to suspend my disbelief, and I do get incredibly wrapped up in both books and movies – I still jump out of my skin at scary moments I've seen a dozen times before. But I'm also very easily jolted out of my experience-taking state – and there are no mirrors involved. Plot-holes and silly mistakes spoil the experience for me totally.

    Interesting that your editors were the ones pushing for third-person. Did they say why, particularly?

    Hope HELL'S FURY does big things for you!

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