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Aristotle approached the question of story and meaning in this way: Why is it, he asked, when we see a dead body in the street we have one reaction, but when we read of death in Homer, or see it in the theatre, we have another? ~ Robert McKee, Story

When a fictional character is killed, no one dies – and the readers and viewers know this, no matter how much they identify with the story. So what does this narrative device actually mean? Aristotle thought that the death of a character evokes emotions in the viewers that then allow the author to convince them of his narrative argument. He calls this "pathos". Following Aristoteles, the death of a character "means" that the audience becomes more susceptible to what the author wants them to believe (the moral of the story). But that is the author's perspective on what he can do with the death of a character, and does not explain how the audience experience and understand it.

To answer this question, we may have to first understand how the audience perceives the character.

A character is no more a human being than the Venus of Milo is a real woman. A character is ... a metaphor for human nature. ~ Robert McKee, Story

A character is a symbol that stands in for something that affects the reader or viewer: their deams and aspirations; or their fears. And thus the death of a symbol may symbolize that a dream will remain unfulfilled or a fear is overcome. Death in the media, I believe, is not final but transformative, and not real but symbolic, and this becomes most apparent in the journey to the underworld (read "death") of many mystical heroes. But that is only my opinion.

Is there research that tries to answer this question from the perspective of psychology?

Or, in the absence of such research, how would you study it?


In his comment, Steven Jeuris remarks, that a fictional character's death means that he dies in the fictional world. Let me elaborate on that.

Readers of fiction don't read like news readers. A newspaper reader reads to learn what has happened in the world he lives in, and (maybe) to understand why. Because these events (and their reasons) affect his own life and the decisions he has to make.

Readers of fiction, on the other hand, do not read to be informed. They read to experience emotions, to escape their own lives, to be inspired, and so on. The facts of the fictional world are irrelevant to their own lives, but the emotions they elicit, the ideas they generate, and the time spent away from the demands of their own lives are important to them.

If a neighbor, politician or artist dies in the real world, and I read about it, this affects my own life. My life has been changed (because a person is missing from it) or it will be changed (because politics will change). If a fictional character dies, nothing changes in my life.

What is changed, is the story.

And story logic is not like the chains of cause and effect (or chance) that govern the events in real life. In the real world, many (if not most) people die through forces that lie outside of their influence. They die of old age or are run over by drunk drivers. In the fictional world, everything happens by design, and that design is based on the story's premise and the characters actions. In a fictional world, no one dies by chance, and even old age has a meaning.

Very simplified, in a (classic type of) story a character achieves his goals, if he overcomes his deficits. If he refuses to grow, he fails. Death is the reward for moral failure. Think of the hero killing his antagonist or the first two knights being eaten by the dragon: these characters don't just die and then they are dead, but their death means that their way of life was wrong.

But of course stories are usually more complicated than that today. Characters aren't simply good or bad, they are "realistic", like real people. And the world they inhabit isn't as simply structured as that of a fairy tale, it is "realistic", like the real world. In Game of Thrones, characters die apparently like in the real world: despite being the good guys.

But still, it is not the real world. If the good guy dies in Game of Thrones, it is not because Game of Thrones is realistic and characters in its world die just like people in real life, but because it is not what we are used to from narrative conventions and it surprises us. The death of the good guy in Game of Thrones means that we cannot trust what we have learned about how stories work. It does not mean that someone died. It is sad and frustrating, because we wanted Ned Stark to succeed, but at the same time it is thrilling and satisfying, because it is novel.

These are just examples, and there will be disagreement over the interpretation of these stories, but I hope they serve to illustrate that the death of a fictional character does not mean (to the reader !) that this "person" has died in the fictional world. It means something different or on top of that to the reader (who knows, which is important, that no one has died !).

Of course, every death in fiction might be interpreted differently – depending on the specific story. But I think that it must be possible to generalize and find an underlying similarity or several "types of fictional deaths".

Finally, I think that this question does not belong on another site, because the study of the psychology of reading books or viewing movies (that is, the psychology of the audience) is the task of the psychologist just like advertising psychology (which also deals with how stories work on their audience).

So if you want, think of my question of belonging in advertising psychology: Does the clean shirt the housewife pulls from the washing mashine mean that the shirt has been cleaned? No. It means that the washing powder is better than other washing powders (or, if you are a cynic, that that is what the advertiser wants us to believe). The meaning of the clean shirt depends on the intent of the narrator and the circumstances of the narration (in an ad).

Similarly, the meaning of a fictional death will depend on the (reader perceived) intent of the narrator (who, by the way, is not the author) and the circumstances of the narration (a book, a tv show). But I don't want to do a (subjective) literary interpretation (like I did here), but learn how this has been studied or, if no such studies have been undertaken, study it with psychological methodology.

Hope this now makes a bit more sense.

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  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean, "what does [it] mean"? It means the character dies in the fictional world? It's quite unclear what you are after. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Apr 29 '16 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ I've got no idea what this is about. Maybe it should be on a literary stack exchange? $\endgroup$ – splint Apr 29 '16 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ I see no contradiction between "In a fictional world, no one dies by chance, and even old age has a meaning.", and "In the real world, many (if not most) people die through forces that lie outside of their influence." From the fictional person's perspective, it can be said to be just as 'meaningless' no? Why do you adopt the perspective of a narrator for one but not for the other? The 'meaning' you seem after is narrative. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Apr 29 '16 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe a sound question, but I would not guess what about exactly. Above all: What does ›mean‹ mean? Applied to a real person, is that asking for the sense of life and death, for the consequences of them dying for society, for the grief work of someone close? — A psychological perspective that comes to mind looks at imagination, planning, pretend-play, bonding with fictional characters, emotion regulation, etc. (not necessarily specific to death). Try google »death fictional characters psychology« for ideas. Maybe refs in academia.edu/1842144/Ways_of_being_close_to_characters help. $\endgroup$ – huh Apr 29 '16 at 10:02
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    $\begingroup$ I would vote moving this to some other site. If you want to simplify the question to "how can I find out about the psychology of people reading fiction", then the answers are quite trivial: you can ask them! For example you could ask people about their beliefs/emotions after reading a story where the character dies. Or you could measure their arousal and compare it to some control story where there is not a death. I'm not sure that will answer what you want to know though. $\endgroup$ – splint Apr 29 '16 at 10:33
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There are various reasons why this question is interesting for cognitive science research. Examples:

  • Children's programming is more violent and features more death than adult programming. Children's first exposure to the concept of death is often in fiction. Nonetheless, we know little about the meaning of death of fictional characters to children.
  • Research done in Somalia following the airing of a BBC radio show depicting the fictional death of a young girl from diarrhoea - one of the biggest killers of children - shows that listeners were greatly affected by the story, learned preventative measures, and put their knowledge into practice, potentially saving lives.
  • Grief counsellors often report patients presenting the same symptoms for grief over a fictional character's death as that of a relative or friend. Furthermore, using the same therapy has similar effects on grieving for fictional loss as it does for real. As such, some counsellors advocate for treating such grief the same as the real thing, rather than something less serious.
  • Fiction writers are also interested in this question for obvious reasons. For example, what makes Anna Karenina's death (considered one of the most tragic deaths in fictional history) so powerful to readers?

Methodology

The currently popular paradigm in psychology for testing the effect of fiction on subjects involves correlating exposure to fiction with various scales of social understanding and empathy:

  • Subjects may be directly exposed to fictional material as part of the experiment (eg, asked to read a passage or view a clip), or their lifetime exposure to fiction may be estimated through self-reporting via the Author Recognition Test (ART), a validated task-based measure.
  • The Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) can be used to measure subjects' tendency to become immersed and engaged in narrative.
  • The most popular tools for measuring social skills and theory of mind are the Mind-in-the-Eyes task (MIE) or Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) - well known tests involving labelling mental states from pictures of eyes. Other tests of social aptitude are also commonly administered.
  • Indexes of affect and emotion are also used to measure effects; eg, depression, stress, self-esteem, etc.

In neuroscience, researchers like to compare neuroimaging results of subjects exposed to fictional material, to results of exposure to corresponding real events. For example, how does the brain react to reading about an action compared to performing that action.

Fiction vs non-fiction

Evidence indeed supports your assertion that fiction has a different effect on readers than non-fiction. Far from an unrealistic, fake, or disengaging experience, a variety of different experiments suggest that subjects are more engaged (Appel & Maleckar, 2012; Goldstein, 2009), learn empathy and improve social skills (Djikic et al, 2013; Mar et al, 2006; Johnson, 2012; Bal & Veltkamp, 2013), and score better on Theory of Mind tests (Kidd & Castano, 2013), following exposure to fiction, than after exposure to non-fiction with the same content. There is even evidence that reading fiction may affect personality (Djikic et al, 2009).

In an experiment by Ebery and Meyvis (2014), subjects predicted that they would be more engaged and emotionally impacted by stories based in fact than fiction. The participants were then given a story to read about the death of a young girl. Though all participants read the same story, half were told it was based on true events, while the other half were told it was a fictional account. Contrary to their beliefs, actual results demonstrated that subjects were more engaged and emotionally impacted by the same story when told in advance that it was fictional.

Evidence of these effects of fiction has been replicated across various media formats, including film, and video games. There are also some notable exceptions: Television for instance, often has an inferior effect. Hypotheses suggested to account for this difference include lower quality content, and at least in children, television is also a less social affair compared to other media where parents are naturally more involved. There is also a difference in effect between literary fiction and popular fiction.

There are, similarly, different effects across genres (eg, comedy vs drama), presentation quality (eg, matching soundtrack), and continuity (eg, technical problems). Thus there are many factors that affect results, together constituting the overall engagement or immersion factor (sometimes referred to as "transportation" or "experience-taking"), that in turn affects the meaning of a fictional character to its audience.

Mental states

This is still a relatively immature area of research, so the usual caveats apply, as many variables have not been explored yet. For example, many of these results have not been tested across cultures, though there is some indication that personality is not a significant factor in results (Mar et al, 2009).

Already however, some high-level theories about the meaning of fictional characters have started to emerge. One such theory is fiction as simulation (eg, Mar & Oatley, 2008; Oatley,1999):

fiction ... is simulation that runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers. ... in the simulations of fiction, personal truths can be explored that allow readers to experience emotions-their own emotions-and understand aspects of them that are obscure, in relation to contexts in which the emotions arise.

This view is supported by the learning effects of fiction on readers as reviewed above.

Rather than focusing on simulation, learning, and practice effects, an alternative approach emphasizes the similarity between the effects of literary events and real-life events (eg, Zwann, 2004). Support for this view comes from neuroimaging of subjects exposed to fictional content compared with subjects experiencing the real counterpart. Such studies show that the same areas of the brain are activated in both cases (Speer et al, 2009; de Vignemont & Singer, 2006; Mar, 2011), suggesting that the mental states involved are essentially the same.

What does this mean for the death of a fictional character? Well, if mental states evoked by fictional stories simulate or mirror mental states evoked by real-life events, then the death of a fictional character could have the same meaning as the death of a real-life person. The death of a favoured character in a television show may have the same effect as the death of a favourite celebrity; the death of a highly engaging fictional character in a book may have the same impact as that of a close friend or family member; and the death of a protagonist one identifies personally with in a story may be equivalent to coming to terms with one's own mortality.

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  • $\begingroup$ Amazing answer, Arnon. Thank you very much for your time and effort. I deeply appreciate your help. $\endgroup$ – user3116 May 4 '16 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ Great, well cited answer to a rather confusing question. I would just note that, although there is lots of evidence that empathy/imagination involves some "simulation" (we put ourselves in the character's shoes), for obvious reasons none of these studies have compared people grieving to real people vs. fictional people. I don't think anyone would claim they are equally affecting. $\endgroup$ – splint May 4 '16 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ Glad it was what you were looking for @what. :-) $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg May 4 '16 at 17:16
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I am not a psychologist. However, I am a writer, so I will try my best. When an author sets out to create a fictional work, he or she aims to immerse the reader in the world, to get the reader to care for the characters. All of this is done in order to leave an impression on the reader--an emotional connection established between the character and the reader makes a work of fiction that much more better.

When killing a character, an author is attempting to use the connection that the reader has with the character in order to produce emotions in the reader. In addition, the author may be aiming to support a major theme in the work. However, the death of a fictional character mainly serves to produce emotions in the reader, and give him/her a sense of resolution to the character.

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