Typical answers to that question are: It's escapism. It takes me away from my troubles. It tells me something about life. I relate to the characters.
Well, only one of those answers is true in all cases. Stories can be escapism, but what about Schindler's List? It helps you escape into the Holocaust. Would you like those troubles in place of your own? Stories can tell you something about life, but so does a sociology book. Which excites you more? You relate to the characters. That's the answer, and it's what makes a story real. Relating to the characters, OK, but how does that work? In what way do we relate to the characters? What form does this relating take?
Stories are like falling in love. Love is an emotion. That's what it's about—relating, connecting, emotionally. That's an answer. We're getting there, but it's not the final answer. Now we need to ask, Whose emotions are we experiencing? The emotions are in us, so they're our own in that sense, but they're coming from somewhere else. We're not the only one having them. The emotions we're feeling are the emotions of the characters. What they feel, we feel. The better the story, the more we lose ourselves in the characters, the more we become them. If they're excited, we're excited. If they're sad, we're sad. We jump or cry out in fright when they're threatened.
This becoming the character is called identification. That's our technical term. It can be called empathy, sympathy, vicariousness, but our term, our technical/craft term, for becoming the character is identification. And identification is what this whole game is about. Identification is why the reader reads and why the writer writes.
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