I recently read an excellent article entitled "Temporarily Expanding the Boundaries of the Self: Motivations for Entering the Story World and Implications for Narrative Effects" by Michael D. Slater, et al. The title is a bit of a mouthful, and the paper is highly intellectual, but it's a fantastic read. The article endeavors to explain why it is that we as human beings seem to universally enjoy and seek out stories. If I were to ask a room full of people why we love stories so much, the most frequently voiced answer would probably be that stories provide a method of escape. Stories allow us to check-out of our own realities for a time in favor of a different one. In order to understand why it is that we feel the need to escape, Slater and his colleagues conducted research in order to explore what they call "the concept of the self" (Slater et al. 440). Each of us has several versions of ourselves that we are constantly building and maintaining inside our heads (440). I, for example, am a father, a husband, an artist, a professional, a student, a friend, and several other things as well. I have goals associated with my abilities as an artist, goals for my financial future, goals for my relationships, and I'm striving to reach all of those goals simultaneously. Each version of who I am is different and has different requirements that I need to meet. Sometimes those needs overlap, but sometimes they conflict and even compete with each other. Trying to juggle the building and maintenance of all of those versions of who we are is difficult and downright exhausting. Unsurprisingly, the effort for some people is challenging enough to cause serious psychological side-effects (440). Knowing that just trying to be ourselves requires so much of us, is it any wonder that we feel the need to escape on occasion (441)? The article explains the need for relief this way:
No matter how much freedom one feels, one is never free to be other than oneself. A given personal and social identity is inherently confining even when it is relatively comfortable. The personal/social self may be tarnished or it may be gilded, but it remains something of a cage… temporary release from the constraint of personal identity is so widely desired and pursued that it may be considered a fundamental need or desire (442).
No matter which side of the fence you fall on in the argument over content, stories play an important role in providing a much-needed escape for people who need a break from their reality.
Slater and his colleagues further argue that stories provide something beyond escape: an opportunity for "expanded agency" (443), which I thought was incredibly interesting. They explain that the nature of the relationship a person builds with the characters of a story can be so immersive and intimate that the "sense of self" of the person experiencing the story is expanded to include the characters in the narrative. In other words, we're able to break out of the cage of our identity and experience things in the story as if we were someone else. This means that the characters' behaviors, opinions, choices, and experiences become our own for a time. Not only do we feel what the characters feel, but the choices made by the characters in the story are made by us as well: we’re able to do things in the story that we would be unable to do in reality. Our ability to act --our agency-- is expanded to include the actions of the characters in the story (Slater et al. 439-455) 43). When we see Macbeth, we feel the horror of king Duncan's murder as if we had committed the crime ourselves. Stories hold power over us because they give us experiences that are impossible to have on our own.
As I was read through Slater et al's article, I began thinking about all of the discussions I’ve had with people about my favorite stories. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel a sense of protective ownership over a story after I read it. I feel like even though everyone else may have read Harry Potter, my relationship with Harry is special. I find myself defending the actions of characters in stories, whether or not those actions were morally right, as if the actions were mine. Harry is a part of me. A story isn't just an escape, it's an out-of-self experience that has the power to change who we are.
This is part 2 of 4. Read part 1 here. Part 3 here.