Reading a novel brings on something like the development of a multi-personality disorder without – usually – the harmful and long-term effects of the pathology.
The novel requires the readers to identify with the main character or characters to the extent to which we lose, to some extent, the posture of the observer and almost become a participant. And this is even more so in the case of the thriller-type novel. We can become anxious, frightened, angry, disgusted, elated, tearful, satisfied, sexually aroused – and the novel writer will aim at giving rise to at least a number of those emotions and in some cases, all of them.
No doubt this experience is greater or lesser depending on the individual – perhaps to the extent of his or her suggestibility but also certainly depending on the political, social and cultural values of the reader. And of course, the skill and knowledge of the writer in presenting the character, story and scenes.
Yet, for all the effect of identification with the main character, we retain an awareness that we are not that person, whoever it may be in different novels. We know that we are not the fugitive (hopefully!) wrongly accused of a murder, the undercover police officer penetrating a drugs gang, the soldier in a war, the lover being cheated upon, the ordinary employee in a mundane job suddenly thrust into a conspiracy, the witness to a murder, the participant in a past historical event.
We know we are not, yet feelings appropriate to the circumstances of the story’s character are aroused within us. This is what I mean by development of a multiple personality – albeit a temporary one. We can become the person in the story while retaining the person we are and an awareness of which of the personalities is acting in the physical world.
And this is not like dreaming, even when one retains a consciousness that one is dreaming. Dreams do not need characters, places or sequences that we perceive as logical when awake and in fact usually flatly contradict waking logic in at least some features. But presenting that kind of illogicality in a novel would soon have us throwing the book down in disgust. “Suspending disbelief” is possible up to a degree, as in reading about a compassionate head of a state intelligence agency, for example, or a CEO of a multinational company with a social conscience, on in other kinds of fantasy involving magic. But put too many of those illogicalities together, mix up locations and characters, and we would quickly part company with the book.
Our dreams are of course projections of our personal psyches and events and settings in the dream, with consciousness more or less suspended, are judged consistent with another reality. But the novel is a creation of someone else and of course may well — inevitably does, some would say – contain elements or products of the pysche of the author. Be that so, and even be our psyche engaged in the story, our consciousness demands a certain rationality for it to be acceptable.
The degree to which it is possible to “adopt” the personality of the principal character in a novel was brought home to me fairly recently – and with something of a shock. I had just finished reading Far From You by Tess Sharpe, one of the random choices I often make in the Fiction section of the public library. I judge this first novel by Sharpe to be well-written and effectively constructed as a thriller. Usually the genders of author and main character coincide and this book was no exception. Her character, Sophie, was female and also bisexual but none of that prevented me identifying with her while reading the story.
Very soon afterwards, I began to read Faithful Place by Tana French, in this case a female author writing about a main character who is male – an undercover cop. The story is set in working-class Dublin and so I found many cultural and geographical references with which to feel at ease; the story is interesting, the narrative engaging and at times very funny. However, something kept feeling wrong about it – and it wasn’t that the main character is a cop. Nor was it that I was conscious of the author as being female while the character is male. It took me some pages to identify the problem: the character is male — while I was still partially stuck in the female persona of Sophie, the main character in the book I had previously read. I needed to change the gender of that other personality in me, as the reader, back to male, so that I could feel ‘in synch’ with the male character in French’s story.