November 29, 2011

Do You Enjoy Fantastical Stories?

Paranormal/moody image of a woman in front of a stone cross in moonlight

We’ve talked about the importance of keeping our stories believable, but the fantasy genre (and all its subgenres) require certain aspects to be unrealistic.

Character types and plot points involving dragons, superheroes, vampires, etc. are all beyond the reality of our world.  What does that mean for the reader?

A few weeks ago, my friend Wendy Sparrow tweeted a link to an interesting post on MSNBC.  The article (no longer available) claimed there would always be haters of Twilight because some people can’t enjoy fantasy.

That’s an interesting thought.  Many people will readily read non-fiction, but never touch a fiction book.  The study cited in the article explained:

“People who were comfortable with fantasy tended to be more absorbed by what they read and saw. They also tended to have an emotional reaction. Many said they felt good after reading the narratives or looking at the paintings.

Another interesting feature of the fantasy prone people was that even when they were confronted with a realistic narrative or painting, they inserted fantastical elements when they mulled things over. “

I thought this study was fascinating.  It touches on our ability to daydream, empathize, project, and have a rich imagination.

What causes the differences?  Are some less empathetic?  Less imaginative?  Do some have difficulty stepping into someone else’s shoes?  Is it due to brain wiring or socialization?

The study makes me wonder where those on the Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome scale fall in relation to these abilities.  Can someone unable to decipher social cues understand the purpose of fiction—embedding ourselves in someone else’s life?  Or do those on the scale still have a rich imagination, but it’s focused differently?

In first grade, I remember telling a classmate she’d enjoy stories more if she turned the book into a movie in her head while she read.  She wasn’t able to do so.  Was that because she was still struggling to learn to read?  Or is there a brain difference, even at that young age?

Even the scientists don’t have the answers.  As the article went on to say:

“Webster [the study’s co-author] isn’t sure why it is that some people aren’t comfortable with suspending the rules of reality so they can lose themselves in a fantasy story. That’s a subject for future research he says.”

I love stuff like this because brain function is so interesting.  This recognition of the unknown encourages me embrace the weird and unnatural.  I write paranormal stories for a reason, and those are the stories I most enjoy reading as well.

I love the world-building of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and I love being wrapped up in a world that is not quite this one.  Historical romance is my second favorite genre for those same reasons—world-building and escaping to another world, in the case of historical romance, the past.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that some people aren’t able to escape in a book like I can.  Do they find other ways to escape, or do they remain in practical-mode their whole lives?

On the other hand, if there are brain differences, maybe this explains why some think romance novels are “evil.”  Someone incapable of understanding fantasy might believe readers think the stories are realistic and are setting themselves up for disappointment in real relationships.  *smile*

No matter the cause, this is yet more proof that a book will never be for everyone.  Some literary agents work only with non-fiction books, so this is not a reader vs. non-reader issue.

Rather, some people are more willing to let authors take the lead in dictating the characters to care about, the dialogue to overhear, the setting details to notice, the emotions to feel, etc.  While others don’t want to immerse themselves in something not real.  So sometimes, whether someone enjoys a book is out of the author’s hands.

Do you (or someone you know) not enjoy fiction?  Do you have insight into the questions this study brings up?  If you do enjoy fiction, are some genres too unrealistic for you?  Why do you think that is?  How would you rate your imagination and tendency for daydreaming?  Does your brain create a movie in your mind while you read?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Laura Pauling

My dad does not read any fiction. Just nonfiction scientific books.

I love fantastical stories. I think it’s the writing that makes a story believable, not what actually happens. 🙂

Susan Sipal

Fantastic questions and exploration, Jami. This is a key difference between me and one of my friends/critique partners. She does not care for fantasy, has a hard time buying into the world. She’s also much more practical in running her life than I am. She can make decisions based on her head over her heart, and I fail miserably at that.

I love learning about how the brain works, and even more, I like trying to understand these differences from a socio-anthropological viewpoint. I wonder what this fantasy preference would have to say about our history?

Teresa Robeson

I’m a reader of the polar ends of the spectrum in terms of genre. I love non-fiction books and I love fantasy/sci-fi books but I’m not as crazy about realistic fiction (like murder mysteries).

The line “This article claimed there would always be haters of Twilight because some people can’t enjoy fantasy” made me laugh. One could hardly say that Stephen King can’t enjoy fantasy but, yes, he’s a Twilight hater.

You posed an interesting question about people who have autism. I hope someone who has autism can answer that. I can only answer from the perspective of a mom who has a son with mild autism. My son does find it hard to empathize and understand social contexts and story lines, even. Yet, he’s always writing stories in his notebook. He can’t express why to me though. His stories are not fully of subtlety, I have to say. They’re very much action driven, and maybe that’s a telling point in itself.


Oh my goodness, that describes my mother to a T.
We had a discussion the other day on my writing. I pretty much write all things she can’t get her head around, but loves literary fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.
She said “the things you write about aren’t real to me.”
And while it confuses me, I can see her point. Her suspension of disbelief can only expand to include things that are real to her. She sees a painting and can only see normal objects. While me, on the other hand, can find all sorts of shapes and shadows that could be this or that…

Nancy S. Thompson

I have a friend who is a librarian and who only reads non-fiction. Go figure! She just doesn’t care for novels. As for me, I LOVE fiction and pretty much spurn non-fiction. I crave the adventure of someone else’s life. Having said that, I tend to choose more realistic fiction. But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the occasional paranormal. I do know that I don’t particularly care for high fantasy where the world is completely foreign and fantastical. I guess I’m just a bit too grounded for that. And yes, I see every book as a movie in my head. I thought everyone did. 🙂

Brooklyn Ann

Fascinating topic. And wow about the MSNBC article. I didn’t care for Twilight but I LOVE fantastical stories. My husband doesn’t read much and when he does it’s always non-fiction. I’ve talked to a lot of people who don’t read and the consensus seems to be that they literally cannot see the story/ world in their mind. All they see are words on a page. My heart aches for them.

Juturna F.

My roommate hates fiction, but adores nonfiction – the exact opposite of me. I’ve tried to get her to read a multitude of good books, but even the slightest hint of nonrealism makes her roll her eyes and put it up. She won’t even read outdated textbooks for historical value, or old philosophers’ ideas, because if it’s wrong, it’s fiction! On the other hand, she’s tried to ply me with the multitude of the confidence-building self-help books, biographies of celebrities, and textbooks that crowd her shelves. We couldn’t have more opposite reading tastes.

On another note, I dislike Twilight, but not because it’s fiction. I’d much rather read from a number of excellent authors, such as Meredith Anne Pierce, or Alyssa Day, or Mercedes Lackey, or Nalingi Singh, or Karen Chance, or….

Jo Eberhardt

Hi Jami. Another interesting post and discussion. Just thought I’d add my two cents. First, the whole “can’t see a movie in my head” thing may be completely unrelated to this topic. I love speculative fiction, write urban fantasy, and and most drawn to books that aren’t mired in the mundanity of realism. But I can’t see a movie in my head when I read, either. (I also don’t dream in pictures, but that’s another story.) I’m not a visual learner/communicator at all. For people like me, even remembering the faces of people you’ve seen in a movie is nigh impossible, so creating those images for myself… move along, nothing to see here. My Dad doesn’t like to read anything that’s not “real” (although, incidentally, he’s incredibly visual and can turn anything into a picture or movie in his head). He enjoys thrillers, crime, and other fiction, but nothing that couldn’t really happen in the real world. I also discovered recently that he’s very uncomfortable with fiction drawing forth emotions. He feels completely out of control when his (under-worked) imagination assaults him. I co-opted him into trying a fantasy role-playing game a few years ago (with hilarious results), and the next morning he said, “I didn’t like that at all. I kept having dreams about castles and .” He was quite upset about the whole thing. My sister, on the other hand, doesn’t like fiction because she doesn’t see the point. She’d rather read non-fiction every time. She’s an incredibly…  — Read More »


Your sister sounds like my mother! 😀


I’m going to come down on the side of socialization here. I don’t think there’s any intrinsic difference between fantasy lovers and fantasy haters, brainwise. I think it has to do with whether (and how much) creativity’s encouraged when we’re young, and I also think there’s a feedback loop—people who enjoy daydreams will daydream more often and get better at it; people who like fantasy will reinforce their penchant for flights of fancy by reading fantasy. Of course, it’s really hard to say for sure because scientific is notoriously misreported and misinterpreted in the press, so there may be evidence for nature that we’re not getting … Ah well. In terms of visualizing stories, though, that may be a brain thing, and may have some relationship to learning styles. Visual learners see pictures when reading. Aural learners hear voices. Maybe? I’m a big urban fantasy reader, with forays into science fiction and “literary” genre writing (Chabon, Mitchell, Cronin), and sometimes historical-by-dint-of-age. I want realism in my stories, but not too much, because reality is boring. However, I seem to want romance in fiction to be realistic. A lot of the romance tropes drop me out of the story and/or come off as cheesy. I also don’t like romance to be the focus of the book, and I’m not traditionally romantic person in general. Just to throw a wrench in your ‘evil romance novels’ theory. 😉 I definitely rate my imagination and creativity as being high. I’m a writer. How could…  — Read More »

Jo Eberhardt

I totally agree on the visual vs auditory thing. That’s what I was trying to get at, but I think you expressed it much more effectively.

I come away from a story with a really strong sense of each character’s voice — the way they talk, the things they say, the actions they’re likely to perform. If you asked me to describe a character, it would be in those terms rather than what they look like.

On that note, I wonder if people who are highly kinesthetic (emotional and/or experience oriented) find it difficult to enjoy fantasy because it’s not something they can personally experience. This just occured to me because both my Dad and sister are mostly kinesthetic.


Hm, I’m a visual-kinesthetic learner who loves speculative fiction. I think the “visual” side mainly influences my story comprehension, not my story experience.

See, I’m a “visual learner”—from monochromatic typed words. Put it in color, cursive, or pictures, and my comprehension drops dramatically. (Seriously, it’s not uncommon for me to misspell my own signature, because it’s so hard for me to tell what I’m writing, though others tell me my cursive is neat and easy-to-read.)

But I often walk around or act out motions in a scene while I muse on it, so I think my kinesthetic side is more involved. The more I’m experiencing and enjoying a story, the more often I find myself walking around my room, blinking at the clock and wondering where the time went and why my coffee or tea is cold.

Walking while quizzing myself is the single best method I use for memorization.

I actually have trouble watching TV shows and movies. Comprehending them doesn’t come natural to me.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I think for a lot of people I know, it comes down to “what can I learn from this book.” For some, they want hard facts. Stuff they can use in their lives direction.

Others want softer stuff such as emotions, relationships and all that gooey stuff. Still, it’s about what they can learn and use.

Speculative fiction, by it’s nature, contains a lot of content that may not apply directly to someones life. Or at least many see it that way (I see imagination as valuable in life).

Me, well, I read non-fiction for pragmatic reasons. I read what I need for my job, I read the news, all of that.

For enjoyment, I stick to speculative fiction. I like to exercise my imagination. I love building worlds in my mind, whether in my own writing, or simply by mentally expanding on someone else’s ideas.

My life is interesting and dramatic enough. I don’t need contemporary fiction to fill in any voids.

Another thing that may affect what people read…people may see speculative fiction as conflicting with their existing belief system.

Sharon K Owen

I am right there with you about escaping into a book, creating a movie in my mind as I read and also adding imaginative touches to anything I see. I am a day (and night) dreamer and am “writing” my stories in my head long before they appear on paper. Often my “imaginary” characters seem more real to me than many in my “real” world.

I think the line between non-fiction and fiction is very blurry because we all filter experience through our own belief system and experiences, therefore, the related incidents are always chosen from a myriad of other incidents to create a cohesive story. Two people could share the same upbringing and experiences and they would tell considerably different stories based on their perceptions and conclusions.

Gene Lempp

A well-written book does indeed play out in my head like a movie. This is also my litmus test for a good book in that if the movie hasn’t started by the second chapter, I’m very likely to put the book down and never touch it again.

This study is interesting to me. I am a realist, yet I have always enjoyed fantasy and science fiction. For me, these genres are metaphor and a chance to adventure in places I’ll never get to go personally. On the other hand, most paranormal doesn’t hit for me. I can’t buy into a vampire, a zombie or a werewolf but I can a sentient robot, a dragon or an elf. We all have our quirks and tastes.

To dream and fantasize is human, so I can’t imagine the sad loneliness that must plague those unable to relax their realities enough to enjoy a vacation of the mind.

Great post, Jami 🙂


Great post, Jami!

Gene? I’m loving what you said here:

To dream and fantasize is human, so I can’t imagine the sad loneliness that must plague those unable to relax their realities enough to enjoy a vacation of the mind.

Vacation of the mind…that’s an interesting phrase isn’t it? I mean, even people who read non-fiction get carried off in a book with other facts that interest them. Things presented in the book that they wouldn’t ordinarily be thinking about. So, I guess it’s whatever escapism <-did I spell that right? 0_o works for them.

I can only tell you, that recently I found my kindgarten report card and it read: (this is honest-to-God people) Murphy prefers to build things out of her blocks then add them up. (So true to this day!)

What does this tell me? Well, we all have our ways to process. Some people need to be far removed from normal to escape. As in another planet. While others just might need a different subject or different people or a different situation, but still remain tied closely to our reality. Does it matter? Heck no! There are enough people doing their thing – fiction, non-fiction, building with their blocks or just adding them up and that's what makes life interesting. We're all not gonna fit into a round hole. I'd hate it if I thought EVERYONE loved twilight. ACK. That would freak me out!

Great topic!

The ever quiet Murphy ;D

Gene Lempp

Hi Murphy 🙂

I was an “independent block thinker” as well. Building pyramids with them or other structures was of far greater interest then worrying about the words. Of course, my mother disagreed so to please her I started to build pyramids with the words spelled across or down them. Sort of crossword meets Qbert 🙂


My mother can’t stand fiction, particularly fantasy. “It isn’t useful,” she says; she also considers speculative fiction “Childish escapism.” She would far rather read a non-fiction book purporting to be about a psychological condition than to read a fictionalization of a real event that was influenced by that condition. Now, if a work of fiction is Based on Real Events, she’s okay with it, but otherwise? She considers it a waste of time. I’ve tried explaining to her that speculative fiction can be fascinating, just if you use the world-building to analyze the author’s presuppositions about the world and how it works. Does the author think everyone’s basically good, that some folks are simply evil, something else? My mom’s answer: “Why would you want to do that?” Me: “To learn how other folks put things together, to be able to understand where they’re coming from.” My mom (and brother, although he enjoys thrillers and can write amazing poetry when he bothers): “What does that matter?” Me: *facepalm* And then there’s my dad, who seems to believe that the only fiction of value is the Meaningful Fiction, which can only be produced by people *cough* men *cough* of a certain age… (Seriously, some years ago, when I said I wanted to write fantasy, like Tolkien and Lewis—which my dad’s okay with—and he said that no young girl is going to write anything meaningful. Ironically enough, he uses the family Netflix account almost daily to watch fiction TV shows and movies.) My…  — Read More »

Nicole Basaraba

I have a European friend who really doesn’t like fantasy. They don’t even read fiction, only non-fiction. I always found it frustrating when he doesn’t understand that a majority American movies are generally made from fiction and many comedies verge on satire. Then he asks: “I wonder if Americans really are like that?” My immediate response is no because I know, having grown in up North America that it is for entertainment.

I’ve also noticed that many American movies use stereotypes, which isn’t very good if you’re not from North America and don’t understand the humor.

Anyways, I guess I’d just like to say that I definately enjoy fantasy and its hard for me to understand why some people just can’t take the “escape” or don’t like to.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Another fabulous post!
Your paragraph about Autism really made me wonder. That’s something I would have never thought about had it not been for the questions you asked there. Very inciteful.
I’m a fiction reader. I read some non-fiction, but they are mostly books on the craft of writing.
I love to lose myself in a book, and so far I haven’t found a genre that’s too unrealistic for me (authors on the otherhand sometimes don’t do their jobs in suspending my belief)
When I first read the back cover blurb for Crichton’s Jurasic Park I thought, HOW THE HECK is this guy gonna pull this off. But Crichton is a master and five pages in I was a believer.
So a truly believble fantasy hinges on the ability of the author to immerse you in his or her world.
That’s my opinion.
Loved this, Jami.
Have a great morning!

Jacquelyn Smith

LOL, that bit about Twilight is funny. Interesting post!

I’m the only one in my family who really reads fantasy. My parents were able to wrap their heads around Harry Potter, but that’s about it. They often gave me flak for not reading ‘real literature’ when I was growing up. I could never understand why anyone wouldn’t get totally engrossed by a good fantasy story. For me, the more fantastical elements there are, the better. I rarely read contemporary fantasy. It’s too close to real life for me. 😛


I’ve known a few people with Aspergers, and most of them liked fantasy, especially DnD. I imagine they probably all had different reasons for it, but I imagine fantasy might be easier to read, not harder. There’s a lot of fantasy that sets up rules — this is how the world works — and then explores those rules work.

Justine Dare Davis (@Justine_D_Davis)

Another great post, Jami! I so agree with this: “It’s difficult for me to imagine that some people aren’t able to escape in a book like I can. Do they find other ways to escape, or do they remain in practical-mode their whole lives?” I can’t imagine either. I escape in reading and in writing. I’ve done futuristics, paranormals, and one lone historical, in addition to a lot of straight contemps, and I read across the board except for horror. So I guess I can escape into anything that’s well done and doesn’t drop me out of the fantasy.

As for the people who think romance novels are bad, my first reaction is always to refer to a man who loves to read, say, Tom Clancy. And ask them if they would expect that man to actually go looking for a defecting Russian sub coming up the river. When they say no, as they always do, I ask them why they think only men are smart enough to tell the difference. Usually shuts ’em up.


Lol. This is an awfully ironic topic. I didn’t realize it until I read this line you wrote, Justine: I can’t imagine either.

We’re a bunch of imaginative people discussing how we can’t imagine others lack of imagination…it’s actually quite funny when you think about it.


[…] Do You Enjoy Fantastical Stories? by Jami Gold. […]


A movie? Ha. Movies aren’t real enough for me. When I read a book or watch television, I lose myself in the story. I’m not just watching or reading it. I’m LIVING it. This is my biggest problem in life, actually. As my mother puts it, I live in fantasy and visit reality. My entire life is spent inside my mind, creating stories and characters and scenarios beyond the norm. When I’m reading a book, I have to lay it down periodically, get up, and imagine myself as the main character or a friend inside the story, and make my own story with them. In fact, that’s the whole appeal of reading for me. My mind will go into a fantasy world, whether I want it to or not, on a regular basis. Reading is how I direct where those fantasies go. Otherwise, they can go into some not-so-pleasant directions. I can’t stand silence. My mind fills silence up with imaginings and fantasies. The only way to quiet it, direct it in one direction and not bounce from character to character, or idea to idea, is to have music playing, a movie playing, and/or a book to read. I’m so imaginative, that fantasy is almost more real than reality. I can still tell the difference between the two, which means I’m not totally crazy, but I’m very different then most people. I have bruises on my arms and legs regularly because I pace in my room while imagining. And I’m…  — Read More »

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