You guys know that scene in “Umbrella Academy” where Five answers the door, adult beverage in hand, and his whole attitude is just … just …
That’s my Entire Mood for 2020, and I Cannot Lie.™
(like, without any actual alcohol. but you understand. it’s the SPIRIT of the TIMES.)
Regardless of my mood, I’m here with a blog post analyzing the way I experience stories. Cheers!
How do you experience stories, friend?
That’s a broad question. Let me make my meaning plainer. What precisely happens in your brain when you crack open a book or turn on a movie? You’re entering an imaginary world, sure. We all do that. But what does your level of participation–your “form” of participation, more accurately–look like?
You have several options, don’t you?
1. You can remain on the sidelines of the story, a quiet observer. You’re in roughly the same position as your standard omniscient narrator: watching from a distance. The fly on the wall.
2. You can (mentally) jump in to participate, but as your ordinary self: a “tagalong” in this group of imaginary friends. You’re part of the team, but you’re still off to the side. You stay at a slight distance while the heroes take the lead.
3. You can slide into the hero’s (or any other character’s) skin, and literally become them. Their experiences become your experiences. Everything that happens to them is–quite literally–happening to you, with no filter in between.
Can you guess which of these methods is the one I use?
*clears throat* Yeah …
I always, always, always insert myself into one of the characters, slipping effortlessly into their shoes without even realizing I’m doing it. From that point on (either until the story ends, or until I switch identities) I AM THAT CHARACTER. Seeing what they see. Hearing what they hear. Feeling what they feel. Any insult or threat to them is an insult or threat to me, no questions asked.
For most of my life, I didn’t know I was doing this. I didn’t ask myself “what” I was doing as I consumed books & movies, because it seemed obvious to me that whatever it was, it was the only way to experience a story. It’s the only way that works for me: ergo, it’s the only way that could possibly work for anyone else.
Slowly, after much discussion with fellow readers and movie-lovers, it dawned on me … not only do other people not necessarily Do This … many people seem somewhat baffled that I Do This.
“You become the character?” they say, brows furrowed. “You absorb their hurts and worries and fears exactly as if they were happening to you?”
“Why would you do that?” they say, beginning to look a wee bit concerned.
I don’t know.
I can’t rightly say why I do this, other than my brain doesn’t seem to operate any other way. But I can tell you more about what the process looks like, and how it’s shaped my taste in stories, characters, and more. I’m also genuinely curious to hear whether any of y’all do something similar (absorb stories by self-insertion, I mean). Because so far I’ve NEVER MET anyone else who says they do … but I can’t be the only one!!!
(Would I be sad if I was? Eh. No. 😛 )
So, I “become the character.” What does that feel like?
As hinted above, I’m standing in their shoes. I see what they see, I experience what they experience. I am physically and emotionally present (as far as my brain knows) in any situation they find themselves in. I was born without a filter to separate reality and fiction, and I never developed one. If the character gets punched in the face, so did I. If the character’s spouse cheats on them, well, guess who else just got cheated on.
There’s one key caveat: I don’t adopt the character’s personality. I still react to these events the way I would react to them, not the way they necessarily do. For example, the love interest may tease or flirt with the character in a way which doesn’t make them uncomfortable, but if it bothers ME, then I become as flustered (and furious) as I would as if the guy were sitting in my bedroom, saying these things to me:
Because, guess what? He literally is.
That’s how I experience stories.
It’s an incredibly intimate and even invasive process, one that may provoke extreme anger. Which is natural, I suppose. If a character comes into my private room, my private thoughts, and starts throwing their weight around in a way I don’t like–like I said, it’s no longer happening to the character acting opposite them. It’s happening TO ME, PERSONALLY. And I explode accordingly.
(Five Hargreeves is my alter ego, y’all. Smol, fastidious, and full of rage.)
Now, a couple rules for how I self-insert.
- It’s automatic. I do it without thinking.
- It’s not something I control. I don’t choose which characters I become.
- It’s usually a POV character, but not always …
- It’s usually a woman.
I empathize with female characters far more readily than I do with men, even male POV characters. If the main character is a guy, my self-insert function will often “leap” to the women he interacts with. So even though their exchanges are told from the man’s point of view, I feel his actions and words as if they were directed at me from outside. As if I were standing in the woman’s shoes … even though the author intended (if anything) for me to get a glimpse of what it’s like in the guy’s shoes.
I apologize to any authors whose lives I just inadvertently ruined. 😛
This is not to say I NEVER insert myself into male characters–Five, for example–but it’s much less likely. If it does happen with a male character, it’s usually a guy who is demonstrably vulnerable in some way. Like maybe he’s getting taken advantage of by the other men in the story.
If you’re getting the impression that consuming stories is a somewhat Perilous and Stressful Business for me …
YOU ARE NOT WRONG, OLD FRIEND. xD
This is why I’m so reluctant to jump into new books or new movies. Because I don’t know what situations or people I’ll encounter inside them. Because I do know, whatever those are, I’ll be experiencing them on a literal level, with no filter. So I’d better be prepared and I’d better have done my research: otherwise I may find myself stranded in the Amazon jungle with a jerk ex-Marine, or something equally distasteful. Dude, I don’t have time to get lost in the Amazon jungle today.
People talk about escaping into their imagination. Some days … I wanna escape from my imagination.
So I’m not going to enter a fictional situation which I wouldn’t be comfortable entering in real life. I’m not going to read The Hunger Games, because I don’t want to be the one in the arena. I’m not going to read Lord of the Rings, because I don’t want to be the one carrying the Ring.
I think part of my issue is … I have a brain which easily taps into intensity, combined with a personality which doesn’t like intensity. My imagination throws me headfirst into the thick of fictional chaos, surrounded by crazy fictional psychopaths, and tHAT’S NOT AS MUCH FUN AS IT SOUNDS. For me, anyhow. Maybe some folks would enjoy it. 😛
Do any of you have similar issues? Maybe not self-insertion, per se, but a vivid imagination or an inability to process intense material? I’m asking because this is a topic I haven’t seen discussed much. Sure, people talk about “appropriate” content, but not so much … overwhelming content.
If you’re in the remotely the same boat as me, here are my coping strategies:
- Research new stories intensively before trying them.
- Collect spoilers with no shame. Wikipedia is a lifesaver. So’s Tumblr.
- No torture scenes. None. Zilch. Nada. Nyet.
- No on-page sexual assault.
- No forced marriages or arranged marriages.
- No child abuse.
- Few, if any, villain-heavy tales.
- Nothing scary before bedtime.
- Don’t feel bad about hating characters everyone else loves.
- More books, fewer movies. (Visual storytelling cranks up the “intensity” factor by 1000%.)
- The fast-forward button is your friend. It’s there for a reason. Use it.
- Finally, unless you are completely confident in what you’re about to watch:
- Make sure YOU are the one controlling the remote.
Look, the world of storytelling is a big, frightening place, sometimes. It’s okay if you need to go slowly. It’s okay if you need to be gentle with yourself. It’s okay if sometimes you hate your imagination as much as you love it … nobody else gets to tell you how to be a bookworm, after all.
Here’s a nice gif of Five Hargreeves smiling at the love of his life.
So … how do you experience stories?
Can you relate to any of what I described?
Chat with me!