In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall reports that “the psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock…argue that entering fictional worlds ‘radically alters the way information is processed.’ Green and Brock’s research shows that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them.”
What does this suggest? Every story, from Rumpelstiltskin’s failed strategy to Elizabeth Bennet marrying Fitzwilliam Darcy, changes beliefs because readers look through a window into the characters’ lives. Readers look through those windows willingly, and the windows control the view.
Even when the same author created the characters and windows, no two sets of windows are identical. Some windows are so intensely rose-colored that certain readers instantly draw the blinds. Other windows are thickly draped. What’s on the other side seems bathed in gloom or dusk. Readers might not see what’s going on—or might dislike what they’re able to make out.
Stained glass fragments compose some of the least reader-friendly windows. Can you picture the writer inserting one glittering piece after another, progressing ever so slowly, perhaps removing a chip of red that clashes with the burgundy, maybe deciding that a pattern repeats too often or ends too abruptly. It becomes all about the stained glass.
This kind of tinkering with individual pieces often creates a window of breathtaking majesty. But if the window’s beauty obstructs the view of the characters behind the glass, what’s the point?
In “Why I Write” (1946), George Orwell said that “it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”
This offers significant insight into the complex relationship between the writer, readers, and the writer’s characters: the significant connection is between the reader and the characters—not the reader and the writer.
If you’d rather design stained glass windows than admire them in holy buildings, fiction might be the wrong vehicle for your ideas. Because it’s perhaps fair to argue that the relationship between readers and characters verges on the holy.
After all, this is why readers entranced by fiction are so susceptible to its ideas. It’s why writers are asked to “show,” not “tell.” It’s why the best novelists willingly sacrifice so much—including ego—for the sake of story. Story is not about the writer or the writer’s exquisite sentences. The story is about—the story.
The windows your readers look through control their experience. Absolutely clear windows might seem closer to film than fiction, while distracting stained glass—however glorious—interferes with what the audience came to receive. But stained glass that colors and adds depth to the scenes behind it? It doesn’t get better than that.
Tip: Story is about characters and our concern for them; all the rest is window-dressing.