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Fiction and feelings: how literature can affect our mood

I am certain that we are all no stranger to the experience of watching a film or a TV show and finding ourselves crying at certain scenes. There is something so moving about the perfect combination of music to set the mood and a raw exposure of a character’s emotions. When we can see every small expression on a person’s face, it is difficult to feel anything but what the director intends us to feel. As a result, it is almost unbelievable that without this visual or aural aid, literature can still have such a powerful impact on our mood and feelings. Words on a page can make us angry, fearful and cry with the same ease as other mediums can. 

Perspective in a novel is always a key influence. When written well, nothing quite immerses a reader like a first person narrative. It creates the same effect as visually watching a character’s experience; we can feel everything they feel and are given a direct insight into another person’s mind. Every decision and thought is laid out bare for us to scrutinize. We hear and see this character in a much more developed way than on screen because through perspective, they almost become an extension of ourselves, and so naturally we care about what happens to them. It is only when a book provides us with something to really root for that we find ourselves emotionally invested in what we are reading.

Literature can expose our greatest fears and anxieties, ones we might not even consider

If I Stay by Gayle Forman certainly nails this intended effect of the first person perspective. The protagonist Mia describes her out-of-body experience after a devastating car crash that kills everyone involved but her. The novel is an emotional rollercoaster, every flashback or present scene influencing a mood of both sadness and laughter. We get to know the workings of Mia’s brain and suddenly it feels like we really know this character, despite the fact she does not really exist outside of the book. 

The protagonist’s experience is also something most of us are completely unfamiliar with. When a novel throws us straight in the deep end of a situation that we cannot imagine ourselves in outside of the narrative, we become fearful and then attached to the character. Literature can expose our greatest fears and anxieties, ones we might not even consider, in such a direct and rational way that we are forced to confront them. We find ourselves questioning things we would not normally consider – in light of If I Stay, what would happen if suddenly everyone you loved was gone? While the character struggles with these difficult and heart-breaking decisions, we find ourselves also struggling to think how we would respond to the same situation. 

Literature can then often remind us of the fact that even in our own lives, we are never fully in control and this revelation is certainly scary

What can often make us feel angry when reading certain books is when these decisions a character makes are completely different to how we would react. Particularly from an outsider’s perspective, it is very easy to notice when a choice is clearly wrong or if a character is acting stubborn. It is even more frustrating for readers when a character’s reaction is based on a misunderstanding. 

Take Middlemarch by George Elliot as an example. The novel is an entanglement of love affairs and often the reasons relationships fall apart or are not pursued is because each character lacks certain information about the situation, which the reader almost always has knowledge of. In a way the reader becomes the only person who could potentially fix things, but of course the story is completely beyond their control. Literature can then often remind us of the fact that even in our own lives, we are never fully in control and this revelation is certainly scary. 

The intermingling of an unpredictable or unfamiliar plotline that leaves us lacking all sense of control and a protagonist with a strong voice allows a novel to manipulate its readers’ mood. One moment we can be in tears, the next frightened, frustrated or even laughing and it is these emotions that show we truly care about these worlds crafted by authors and make every word on the page worth reading. 

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