Making sense of the Paradox of Fiction.

In this article, I talked about why Psychological thriller is the best literature genre. In that article, one of the most important characteristics I was looking for was that the work should make you feel the raw emotions and somehow be able to get affected by the story.

The paradox of Fiction was first suggested by Colin Radford and Michael Weston in their 1975 paper How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina? . The three points of the paradox are-

  1. People have emotional responses to characters, objects, events etc. which they know to be fictitious.
  2. In order for us to be emotionally moved, we must believe that these characters, objects, or events, truly exist.
  3. No person who takes characters or events to be fictional at the same time believes that they are real.

This is, on one hand, totally rational to think. But, when you think of it, any type of content consumption is, after all that’s said and done, a hoax. No content is real. People you see on the screen seemingly talking to you do not even know you exist. But you believe and you like to believe that you are being talked to. That you are being narrated to, and about.

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

The conclusion they reached in the original paper was that emotional responses to fiction are irrational. Now that is one unpopular opinion that many people have, until they have read enough. But the thing is, they have researched thoroughly, and they sure have read enough. They named the paper “How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina” And the thing is that any human who reads the book, will, inevitably feel a certain way. That, in my opinion, is not irrational. There have been three theories to tackle this paradox. The Pretense theory, The Thought theory and the illusion theory. I think the pretense theory, that claims we do not response emotionally to fiction, is a total failure. The other two, do make sense. That fictional characters can evoke emotional responses and the characters somehow exist, although in the mind. I agree with both of them.

We need to get back to the most basic question. What is fiction ? It’s imagination. Human imagination. A person imagines a certain character to express what they ought to express. It is, in no way impossible to look through the imaginary character and relate to the humane emotions expressed through words. Just take a look at the opening lines of two of the most iconic novels-

Pride and Prejudice- It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Anna Karenina- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Both of these spark a different emotion and they do so without even introducing the character. At the end of the day, I think it’s not a paradox. The way we define fiction is the real reason of the confusion that was sparked.

So, is it irrational to react emotionally to fiction ? No. Literature is written to make you feel a certain way and it does not matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction, comedy or tragedy, biography or narration. At the end, it all serves the purpose and the aim of literature.

Thanks a lot for reading !



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
M.A. Mercier

M.A. Mercier


I am MA Mercier. I am interested in anything and everything! I am here to write about things that amaze me, things I am curious about.