You Are What You Read


When I was a kid, I loved to pretend I was someone special.  Yes, I know, we’re all special, but that’s not quite what I’m going for here.  One summer we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Back then there were a number of shipwreck ruins on the sand.  I climbed onto them and played pirates, the wind whipping through my hair as I waved a stick for a sword.  Another summer we traveled north from Virginia all the way to Canada, staying in a bunch of lushly wooded campgrounds along the way.  My cousin and I wandered among the trees, pretending to be Robin Hood’s men and hunting for magical geodes, armed with my daddy’s hammer and two bows we’d constructed from sticks and string.  (My cousin had a sliver of granite in her thumb until the day she died, from our continual rock-bashing.)   When I moved to South Carolina, the house we lived in was a few yards from a marsh.  There’s something eerie and lovely about marshes, and I spent hours climbing on the branches of live oaks and sitting quietly, waiting for the fae to appear and take me to their land under the hills. 

All those things I did because I read books.  I read about magical creatures and mythical adventures, places that I could never see with my ordinary eyes, but only with the sight of my imagination. And as I read, I discovered that I wanted to be more than just a school kid.  I wanted to fly, to cast spells, to fight evil and emerge triumphant.  I wanted to be those heroes I read about.

According to a study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a reader who becomes utterly engrossed in a work of fiction can find his behavior mimicking that of his favorite character.  In other words, you are what you read.  It depends on how deeply the reader is drawn, of course, and even on what kind of reader you might be.  Not everyone becomes immersed, and I doubt that sort of reader would have the same experience, but generally, I think the study might have a point.  I know that I was affected by what I read.  I learned ways of dealing with my fellow human beings by reading what fictional characters did.  I used to be shy in middle and high school, until the year I read Dune.  Paul Atreides was taken from his home, dropped into a world he couldn’t possibly have been prepared for, and then discovered that he was different in ways he’d never suspected.  I was different, too (not the level of a Muad’Dib, of course – we can’t all be messiahs!) and now I saw that different was okay.  Even cool.  If Paul could overcome the tragedies he suffered, then I could overcome high school.  And I did.  It wasn’t all thanks to Paul, of course, but he helped. 

I want to hear today about characters whose behavior spoke to you, made such an impression on you that you found yourself changed.  Huge ways or small, it doesn’t matter – it’s the change that’s important.   Tell me your tale.


14 comments to You Are What You Read

  • While I know this sounds like I’m making it up, I’m not, it’s true: my entire moral compass and sense of what good and evil meant, in a large philosophical way, came from Star Wars. I was born in 1976, the year the first one came out, and I saw Return of the Jedi several times in the theater. I remember playing with my dolls (some barbie, some not,) and they were not concerned with clothes or boys or cars. No. They were engaged in epic battles for the universe. The single most significant thing I learned was the structure of good and evil: There was good: Luke and Leia. There was wild, but really, eventually good: Han Solo (I always favored him), there was bad: Darth Vader, and there was evil: The emperor. The important thing to understand for me was that “bad” was redeemable. There was hope for Darth Vader and, indeed, he comes back from the Dark Side. The Emperor, on the other hand, can never be redeemed and would never, ever, want to. So, lots of my dolls did bad things but did the right things in the end. Barbie always stayed evil, though. Hmmm. I wonder what that says about my relationship to THAT body image? *grins*

  • Stories were, for hundreds of years, the primary way cultures passed along the behaviors they expected of their children, and I think that’s still true. Whether that story’s in the pages of a book or playing on a screen makes no difference to its value.

    And hey, I loved Han best, too.

  • I didn’t wholly agree with the study, honestly, and I mentioned that on FB, but what you’re talking about here and what I got from the article (Researchers have found that when you lose yourself in a work of fiction, your behavior and thoughts can metamorphose to match those of your favorite character) are two different beasties, IMO. Have I ever been influenced by a work of fiction in some way? Have my understandings changed based on a story? Has a story resonated with me on some level? Sure.

    Even Elric of Melnibone helped me with some things I was dealing with when I read them back in high school. During that time, I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s and was an unpopular outcast, and Elric was this weak, sickly king, an outcast as well, that still did what he had to, though the manipulation by Stormbringer at every turn didn’t help his position. The story resonated with me on some level. It showed that someone who was chronically ill could still do much, that they still had power. But I never found myself thinking or behaving like Elric (thank the Gods). I’ve never read a book or loved a character so much that I started acting or thinking like that character. I think that’s the distinction. One can be influenced by a work of fiction, their minds changed, morals and beliefs rearranged, but I can’t say I’ve personally taken on behavior or personality of a favorite character.

    I feel there’s still a distinction to be made there and believe they’re taking too narrow a view. If you read a story about a character that begins to realize that killing and subjugating another race is wrong and it changes your own views, are you taking on the behavior and thoughts of the character or just being influenced by the story as a whole?

    But perhaps it’s different for a writer, especially for understanding the darker aspects, like with the American Psycho reference in the article. When we write, we pour bits of our own psyche into our characters, using them almost as a science experiment to explore the dark places in our own heads that we already know are there (as they are in everyone), the places we don’t like to look into for too long, the places our own morals keep right where they are. Instead of the characters influencing us, changing our behavior, we influence them, and thereby understand a little more of ourselves in the process. The line from Night of the Living Dead 1990 sums it best for our own characters, “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.”

    Or maybe it’s just different for me. Maybe I just don’t get that invested in a specific character and look more at the whole picture. The characters for me can be friends, acquaintances, people who are in my life for a time, but I don’t pick up their personalities. I’m oddball enough already. 😉 Apologies for the length. I went off on a tangent.

  • I’ve mentioned this book here before, but that’s okay. It was called GOOD TIMES,BAD TIMES, and it was a teen-angst novel by James Kirkwood that was sort of an updated (for the 1970s/80s) version of John Knowles’ A SEPARATE PEACE. I read the book at an incredibly formative time — I was finally emerging from the blur of early adolescence and trying to figure out what it meant to be a near-adult. So was the lead character in Kirkwood’s book, and his struggles with friendship, with authority, with sexuality, with family resonated powerfully with all that I was going through. It was by no means the best book I read in my youth, but it was certainly the most influential on an emotional level.

  • I loved the American Girl books. They had just come out when I was around the same age as the heroines, and my favorite was always Felicity. She was adventurous, impatient, and empathetic. She was willing to bend or break the rules of society in order to do what she believed in her heart was right. I adored her stories (horses and revolutionary war, etc.)

    I don’t know exactly if I tried to be like her so much as she exemplified the things about me I wanted to pull more firmly to the surface. I identified with her, and her stories showed me how to use those elements of myself to affect the world.

    I loved Robin Hood too, by the way. LOVED. Him.

  • Can Sega game characters count?

    I played a game called Uncharted Waters in the 90s by KOEI. It was about pirates and highseas adventure set in the 1500s and had a strong romantic storyline. Joao Franco’s storyline was so immersive for its time that it sparked in me the interest to write my own adventures. It was after playing this game over and over that I penned my first words to paper. nturally, the story was called Uncharted Waters and continued Joao’s adventures.

  • LJ_From_SA

    My grandfather was a huge fan of westerns. Whenever we went to visit you would always find some western novelette next to his lazy boy chair in the family room or even in the shed where he spent most of his days performing carpentry magic (the man was a wizard!!!!!). Emulating my grandpa (the most awesome man in the world!), I tried to help him out but I was more in the way than anything else. Except when it came to reading. When he picked up his book I picked up mine and we read! I was HOOKED! My favorite books were a series written by Marshall Grover called Larry and Stretch. Two sons from the Lone Star state, always in the wrong place at the wrong time and always interfering where they shouldn’t. In the end the bad guys always got their comeuppance. Larry reminded me of my grandpa. Strict, but fair, and with a moral compass that never strayed. Maybe I didn’t identify with the character so much as with the man, but in the end I still tried to make those values my own. 🙂

  • For as long as I can remember, if it had writing on it, I read it. As a child, many of the books I devoured featured animals – The Black Stallion series, The Red Stallion series, etc. I also read Lord of the Flies while I was still very young. I don’t recall ever really wanting to ~be~ any of the characters I read, but I wanted to live what they lived and, perhaps, try to do it better or differently. I lived in the mountains, on the outer edges of civilization; I had a horse. At dawn, I’d disappear into the wilderness and ~be~ Pocohontas, or ~be~ an elf or survivalist, or … until sundown. At sundown, I had to be back in my own skin and in my own house…Or Else. But that’s a different, scary story! 🙂

  • Anne McAffrey’s first Pern novel. It’s been more years than I’d like to admit, and I’ve forgotten details, but the heroine had lived in very poor and difficult circumstances then risen above them to become a great dragonrider. Something about that character spoke to me. At the time, my dad’s business had just gone bankrupt, I was a young teenager, and most of the other neighborhoods around us were comparably affluent;I lived on the wrong side of the tracks. The story encouraged me to forget about what I didn’t have, do well in school, and take hold of whatever opportunities came my way.

  • Daniel, I do agree that we’re all responsible for our own actions. Blaming our behavior, especially our unacceptable behavior, on what we read or see is just making fiction a crutch. With that said, though, I do think we can learn some lessons from our favorite characters, lessons in nobility and kindness and bravery that serve us well in the real world. 😀

    LScribe, when I was in high school, there was a show on PBS called “Once Upon A Classic” that showed dramatizations of famous books like Lorna Doone and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arther’s Court. One year they showed an utterly amazing Robin Hood, one that stuck pretty close to the Howard Pyle stories. I’ve never been able to find it on DVD, but if I ever do, we’ll have to get together and watch.

  • Frodo. I first read Lord of The Rings over thirty years ago and to this day, find myself thinking “Well, if Frodo could come through all that physical suffering and mental anguish, often all by himself, I must be able to handle fill-in-the-blank.” It’s kind of odd how we draw strength from people who never existed … or did they?

  • I’m extremely suggestive when I’m immersed in a novel – I twitch as if I’m acting out the character’s motions, I flinch if they get hurt, I even pick up tics of expression from characters for few hours or days after a really good book. But books have had a long term effect on me too – probably too complex to go into in detail, but they’ve hugely shaped my moral character, sometimes in ways I didn’t realize until long after.

  • Megan B.

    I’ve been trying to think of a book that shaped me in some way, but haven’t come up with anything. However, I do want to say that the phrase “seven hells” stuck with me for days after reading A Game of Thrones, to the point that I had to stop myself from using it in my WIP. I guess for a moment there I forgot where it came from and thought it was just another expression. No doubt other phrases from other books have worked their way into my vocabulary, too. I still sometimes answer “forty-two” when someone says they have a question.

  • Ken

    Nightcrawler from the ealier X-Men Comics stuck with me. In fact, now that I think about it, most of the classic Swashbucklers did. Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Robin Hood, Han Solo. If you had a rapier wit and one in your hand, you were pushing all the right buttons.

    @Megan: 42. I *so* still do that 🙂