Novels: Imagined Worlds or Reflections of Our Own?

In an interview with Anne Tyler, Writer’s Digest asked the author to share what she hopes readers hear most clearly when they look back on her body of work. Her response:

It’s not so much what they hear as what they remember experiencing that I have hopes for. I would love it if readers said, “Oh, yes, I was once an accidental tourist,” or, “I once owned the Homesick Restaurant,” and then recalled that in fact, that hadn’t really happened; they had just intensely imagined its happening.

The whole purpose of my books is to sink into other lives, and I would love it if the readers sank along with me. –Anne Tyler

I had to read it a few times before I understood, and each time I did, I changed my mind on whether I agreed.

I’ve always believed that the highest complement I could receive from a reader is, “I loved your book. That’s me you’re writing about. I’ve been there. That’s my life.” I’m inspired by real life and I write and revise with readers’ real lives in mind (though always staying true to the story). As a reader, I love when I can relate to a character in a book. It helps me connect with her and more fully understand the story.

But then I thought about what Anne said, and decided that maybe it’s better to create something totally new to readers, but so real and vivid that readers create mental pictures that are so intense that they later believe the events and characters and emotions were true. That they were there. That the story was part of their lives.

I’ve thought a lot about this since reading the interview last night, considering Anne’s words in light of some of my favorite YA books this year, and here’s what I’ve realized. For me, as a reader, I do like sinking into other lives, like Anne said. But in order to fully do that, I have to recognize something in the characters, the emotions they experience, their good and bad choices, the world in which they live and work and exist. No, I don’t want to read a complete reflection of my life, but I do want to connect. I do want to see the spark of something true and real, even in a fantasy novel, that I can hold on to as the characters go on to wow, surprise, disappoint, elate, scare, test, anger, woo, and thrill me. That familiar spark or connection is a bridge to the unfamiliar, especially when I’m reading about things with which I’ve no actual experience.

Consider some of my recent reads:

  • THE HUNGER GAMES and its sequel, CATCHING FIRE, by Suzanne Collins: Obviously I’ve never had to fight my peers in a televised death-match for the amusement of the government (I’d be dead by now. I have a bad knee, I hate running, I don’t eat meat, and I can’t function without 4 cups of coffee daily. Soooo not who you’d pick for a survivalist alliance!), but I believed Katniss and followed her through her struggles and life-threatening adventures because I could relate to her need to protect her little sister, her torn loyalties, her analytical mind, her desperation to please the crowd. From there, I could sink into the rest.
  • RED GLASS, by Laura Resau: I’ve never taken a road trip to the middle of rural Mexico, but I have felt misunderstood, fearful, and alone. I’ve loved my younger brothers and feared losing them. I’ve longed to figure out and “fix” someone in trouble. As the story unfolded, it wasn’t difficult for me to imagine. To cross the bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar and put myself in main character Sophie’s shoes.
  • THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien: All right, so I do have a magic ring that could force the world to bend to my whim… I mean… um… yeah. What I loved about this story was not just the larger-than-life fantastical worlds, the magical creatures, the ancient history, the epic battles of good versus evil. It was Aragorn… *cough* I mean, it was the human struggle, the conflicts of love and loyalty, the ongoing tests of friendship, the blurred line between compassion and pity and the dangers that often follow. There was fear and love and bravery and cowardice and sacrifice and humor — emotions and experiences that connect us all. So while I’ve never had to face a dark lord and save the world from its utter demise, I was able to sink into that story completely, devouring each part of the trilogy and even watching the movies dozens of times.

I’m still not sure whether I agree or disagree with Anne’s perspective when it comes to my own writing and reading, but it’s interesting to consider. What do you guys think? Readers, do you prefer characters and worlds that reflect your own, or do you like to sink into something completely new? To what extent? Writers, what about you? Do you write with what Anne describes as a hope that readers will sink into the lives of others with you? What do you think she means?

3 thoughts on “Novels: Imagined Worlds or Reflections of Our Own?

  1. Interesting question, I had to really think about it and I’m still not sure. I think I always sink into the world of a book (well if it’s a good book) whether it be realistic or a fantasy. I think all the best books have to have something in them that the reader can connect with and understand. If you don’t have that then I can’t imagine enjoying the book.
    And if you don’t sink into the world of the book then can you understand the characters choices?

    Agh it’s a really hard one to answer I’ll be interested to see other people’s responses.

  2. That really is an interesting question, for me I think it just may be a little bit of what Anne Tyler said and little of your points, Sarah. I do like sinking into a whole new world but I also do need to feel a connection to the character. I think I need to share the emotional, ethical, energetic components with the character but I like the uniqueness and even strangeness of the situations that character has to deal with. Basically I like the opportunity to see how someone (I can identify with but not be) deals with a death match, psycho killer, etc.

  3. I agree with you that I can get into the strangest and most unfamiliar territory of books as long as I can relate to the character in some way. And also I LOVED Hunger Games and Catching Fire for those reasons. But let me say that I loved Twenty Boy Summer because her loss just reminds me of how I feel about my own. You captured serious loss so perfectly that I didn’t need to relate, it felt like we were the same. Thanks for that.

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