Getting into Character

Child reading book

When a young reader becomes immersed in a story and feels as though they are one of the characters, it can affect the development of their self-identity. This was the fascinating subject of my dissertation this year, for my Masters in Creative and Critical Writing. There are new research studies out on the subject, which use brain scans as their method of measurement.

There are countless examples of narrative fiction altering the course of people’s lives by influencing their attitudes, values and, in some extreme cases, even major life decisions such as what career to pursue. When individuals experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection with that character is formed and, as our findings suggest, that character becomes intertwined with the self.[1]

Living out characters’ experiences in the mind helps readers to look at various options when decision-making (e.g., The character did ___. I would have done ___.) The more a reader grapples with moral issues, the more opportunity they have to develop morally.[2] Immersing themselves in a character’s world also helps readers to develop empathy for others, as they walk in different shoes during the narrative journey.

What are the implications of this research?

Avid readers of fiction who identify with a character are exposed to more opportunities to learn and grow than those who don’t read narrative works. Processing through possible choices and dealing with age-appropriate moral conflict is important for development. This is what exposure to fiction brings to the reader.

For those of us who write fiction, the implications are clear. They challenge us to write quality literature, as we carry the next generation of readers into the future.


[1] Broom, Timothy W., Robert S. Chavez, and Dylan D. Wagner. “Becoming the King in the North: identification of fictional characters is associated with greater self-other neural overlap.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 16, no. 6 (June 2021): 549.

[2] Kohlberg, Lawrence. “Stages of moral development.” Moral Education 1, no. 51 (1971): 28-29.