The Rationality of Emotional Responses to Fiction

Emotional responses are often the result of a real-world stimulus, such as crying because of the death of a loved one or directing anger toward someone’s rudeness. These are responses to real-world agents of provocation and are not reproduced when these agents carry a degree of artificiality, such as in the form of a lie that one has awareness of. It remains interesting, then, that works of fiction, despite their artificiality, are able to evoke emotional responses in the same way that the death of a loved one can. Kendall Walton (1978, p. 13) observes this contradiction, noting that ‘we frequently have psychological attitudes toward fictional entities despite the impossibility of physical intervention.’ The emotional response one can have to fiction, then, presents a paradox. How can one feel emotion for something that they know isn’t real?

Figure 1: Responding to Fiction. Udayana Lugo. (n.d).

Genuine emotions for fictional characters appear to be stirred, despite the knowledge of their conjured state in the consumer’s mind. Colin Radford highlights this as the audience being involved in ‘incoherence and inconsistency’ (1975, p. 78) with the fiction, engaging with the fiction’s artificiality as if its events were real. One can be ‘rationally moved by someone’s plight’ (1975, p. 68) if one believes that is what has occurred, but this can cease to be if one has reason to doubt the individual’s suffering. This same rule is absent when applied to engaging with fiction, however. Radford considers this to be the suspension of ‘our disbelief’ (1975, p. 71) and that the audience are emotionally moved, but not ‘moved’, by the characters and their plights. Were the audience to be truly ‘moved’ by the fiction they would feel compelled to intervene in the drama and ‘try to do something, or think that we should’ (1975, p. 71). There is an awareness, however, of the fictional reality that we are witnessing and there is no attempt to intervene on the behalf of the audience.

Radford’s take on the paradox specifically highlights the discrepancy between how emotion is experienced outside of fiction and what is experienced when viewing fiction. Radford’s account of the paradox does not really offer a solution to it as much as it highlights the illogical, irrational nature of human emotional responses to fiction. While a valid case is made by Radford for this point, his account fails to provide an explanation the generation of our emotional responses. Kendall Walton builds upon Radford’s ideas, but insists that the emotional responses to fiction are generated through a game of make-believe, which the consumer of the fiction unconsciously engages in with it.

Walton’s solution to the paradox is proposed through his analogy of a man called Charles experiencing fear while watching a horror film about a green slime. Walton argues that the fear Charles is experiencing is not of the green slime, but rather of the ‘depiction of the slime’ (1978, p. 10) and is instead a ‘quasi-fear’ (1978, p. 6). To Walton, the viewer engages in a state of make-believe with the fiction using it as a prop to generate a quasi-reality to exist in, placing ourselves on ‘the same level’ (1978, p. 23) as the fiction. Charles isn’t actually in a state of fear but ‘make-believedly’ participates with the fiction and, therefore, generates a simulation of fear. He is ‘make-belevedly’ scared. Walton justifies that Charles isn’t experiencing genuine fear as his fear is not accompanied by any danger, so he can’t legitimately be afraid.

Figure 2: Spilling Green Slime (n.d.)

Walton’s distinction between quasi-fear and fear presents a dilemma of ascertaining how that is actually distinguishable to Charles. Charles is terrified, according to Walton’s analogy, and there is no indication that he is pretending to feel that way. Fear is an innate response, so it logically follows that all forms of fear are genuine emotional responses. Walton disagrees with this idea, however, viewing quasi-fear as manufactured, as if the consumers of fiction are actors themselves. Walton is confusing the audience with actors, portraying them as if they place themselves within the fictional world they are consuming, akin to being bystanders to the drama.

Walton’s solution positions the audience as active participants in the make-believe that the fiction generates as if they are actors within the fiction themselves. Essentially, consumers of fiction pretend to feel emotion. Walton’s solution, then, would seemingly dispel Aristotle’s notion that we feel genuine pity and fear when we watch tragedies and would require the audience to maintain a level of disconnection between the fiction and reality. Fundamentally though, this is a flawed concept. The audience are not always captivated by the fiction they see before them due to its failure to create its intended response. Noel Carrol references Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Brain from Planet Arous as fictional works that failed to grasp their audience’s imagination (1991, p. 385). Were the audience to engage in a game of make-believe every time they engaged with a fiction then they would be ‘caught up’ with it every time, but this is simply not the case.

Walton’s solution to the paradox is reductive in that it does not consider that an audience can resonate with a piece of fiction or feel a genuine degree of emotion as result of engaging with it. Were Walton’s solution to the paradox correct, there would essentially be no such thing as bad fiction. While Walton is right that we must buy into the world-building of the fiction to feel moved, it is up to the fictional reality to convince you of its authenticity. Michael Weston’s take on the paradox heavily draws upon this idea as his solution.

Figure 3: Emotion 2. Alexandra Kršňáková (2019)

Weston’s rebuttal essay of Radford’s take on the paradox highlights that there is no inconsistency experienced and that the audience are emotionally moved in the same way they would be were the fiction a reality. The emotional response does not rely on the suspension of disbelief, as Radford asserts, but rather it is a ‘consequence of following fact’ (Weston, 1975, p. 85). There is a consistency tied together by language and our ability to respond to it being communicated genuinely. To Weston, it is not about what is real but what is presented as genuine and sincere within the fiction. He notes ‘we are fully aware we are watching actors mounting rehearsed lines but that is not the focus of our attention’ (Weston, 1975, p. 87). It is within the context of the fiction that it becomes possible to emotionally respond.

The response can be likened to being told a tragic story and responding with sadness, but when it is revealed the story is a lie the initial emotional response is dismantled. The initial response was genuine, and it only changes when the context of its sincerity changes. Returning to Walton’s analogy of Charles through Weston’s framework of emotional evocation, we see that Charles’ emotional engagement with the fiction is predicated on the representation of the slime and its significance within the play as a horror figure. It is through the generic conventions of the film that Charles is able to buy into the green slime’s terror, and therefore feel scared. It is important to note that this does not dispel Walton’s idea of ‘quasi-fear’, however, as Charles is aware that he is not in any danger which would suggest he is not experiencing true fear. Weston’s rebuttal applies well to feelings of pity and sadness, but less so to fear, as a genuine fear response would involve a sense of danger present to the individual. Weston’s rebuttal therefore fails to provide a sweeping account for all emotion, but perhaps suggests that different emotions work differently in response to different fictions.

Figure 4: Between Fiction and Reality. Marcus Facsan. (2008)

‘Thought theory’ is proposed in opposition to Walton’s due to the problems mentioned above. As defined by David Davies (2007, p. 126), ‘thought theory’ is concerned with the idea that our emotions are a response to the ‘very thought of the narrated events occurring’. It is not the fiction that we are responding to emotionally, but the very idea it is communicating to us. This addresses the paradox, primarily in that it addresses the disconnection and rationally explains how the audience becomes ‘caught up’ in the fiction. The audience is able to feel pity and remorse for tragic characters because they can understand, independently of the fiction, that their experience is traumatic. When an audience watches Othello slowly getting deceived by Iago into ruining his life by murdering Desdemona, the audience is able to be moved into a state of pity for the naïve and jealous Othello by thinking about what happened to him. Similarly, one can be emotionally moved by simply thinking about ‘committing a particularly egregious social faux-pas’ (Davies, 2007, p. 126). This speaks to the naturalistic response of human emotion which occurs organically when confronted with deeply moving subject matter, such as news of a death or a similar tragic event.

Peter Lamarque elaborates on ‘thought theory’ as a proponent of the concept. He notes that while the audience acknowledges that something is fictional, ‘we can still take it seriously’ (Lamarque, 1981, p. 302) without having to exist in a state of make-believe with the fiction. Lamarque rejects Walton’s solution to the paradox, noting that ‘we can reflect on, be moved by, a thought independently of accepting it as true’ (Lamarque, 1981, p. 302). To Lamarque, the disconnect between what is real and what is not can never be removed, but that is not important to how the audience emotionally responds to the fiction. There is a direct appeal made to our thoughts through fiction that an audience can relate to and derive a response from as a result. This improves upon Walton’s solution as it doesn’t rely on the idea of the real existence of the fiction and doesn’t demand that fiction be entirely grounded in reality.

‘Thought theory’ clearly defines how emotional response to fiction is generated. Under Walton’s analogy, Charles isn’t afraid of the slime but rather the thought of the slime. It is not the intentional object of the slime that is scary, but Charles’ own engagement with his mental representation of the slime. Charles is at no point convinced that the slime causes any danger to him yet is terrified nonetheless due to his own engagement with the material. David Davies notes that ‘the thought theorist maintains that it is not only beliefs about the intentional object of an affective state that can cause genuine emotions, but also the very act of entertaining the thought of the object’ (Davies, 2007, p. 127). Problematically, however, the thought theory provides an explanation for how emotional responses are evoked by thoughts rather than why, and would not satisfy Radford’s initial conception of the paradox: ‘We are saddened, but how can we be? What are we sad about? How can we feel genuinely and involuntarily sad, and weep, as we do knowing as we do that no one has suffered or died?’ (Lamarque, 1981, p. 77).

Figure 5: Untitled. Irene Perez (2022)

Stephen Davies proposes ‘simple theory’ as the solution to the paradox of fiction and emotion over ‘thought theory’. Davies argues that the audience’s separation from the fictional world ‘offers no impediment' (2008, p. 281) on their ability to feel emotion. (In reference to Anna Karenina) While the consumer is aware that ‘Anna doesn’t suffer’ as she is not real, they rightly believe that ‘Anna suffers in the world of fiction’. (Davies, 2008, p. 270). He notes that their emotions range commonly ‘over what does not exist and what cannot be affected by our present actions’ (Davies, 2008, p. 270), such as future-oriented emotions like hope, as well as past-oriented emotions like regret. The frequency of instances such as these show that ‘our emotional responses need not entirely presuppose their intentional objects current existence in the world’ (Davies, 2008, p. 270). Through highlighting that the audience’s emotions are not always tied to the real, Davies illustrates that the emotional response to fictional worlds is a natural process without having to imagine the contents of the fiction. Following Weston, Davies notes that following a story with ‘sensitive understanding’ (2008, p. 273) is sufficient for the development of emotion, without needing mental representation to achieve this. This would satisfy Radford’s initial question as it would adequately explain how and why emotions are aroused by a work of fiction. Davies’ proposal similarly dispels Walton’ theory also by not highlighting that the emotional response is genuine and ‘real fear’, not having to be stimulated by a real occurrence in reality.

This water is muddied however when we introduce different kinds of fiction with which the audience can engage with. Virtual reality, for example, is predicated on maintaining synchronicity with your movements in reality and with the fiction. It could be argued, then, that this would be existing in a state of make-believe with virtual reality. Similarly, a video game promotes interaction with the narrative directly appealing to the idea of role-playing within fiction. While Walton’s make-believe would apply here, it would not with a novel, which would conform more to thought theory because of the lack of visual stimuli that requires you to create mental projections to respond to the work.

Emotional responses to fictional worlds are bound up in our naturalistic human empathic response to the evocation of emotion. When an audience engages with fiction they are ‘caught up’ in its world through our ability to immerse ourselves through the fiction’s sincerity and genuineness in communicating the character’s reality. While they may be an active participant as a consumer in some sense, Walton’s theory fails to grapple with the paradox by denying that genuine emotion is felt by consumers and is instead a watered-down response, despite these two not being explicitly distinguishable from each other. The thought theory offers a solid account for the experience of emotion, however, Walton’s theory must be reconsidered when we introduce the idea of different kinds of fiction, such as virtual reality, which does require a degree of make-believe in synchronicity with the fiction. It would be consistent then that different fictional forms require different types of emotional engagements.


Carroll, N. (1991). On Kendall Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe [Review of Memesis As Make-Believe, by K. Walton]. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 51(2), 383–387.

Davies, D (2007), Aesthetics and Literature. Continuum International Publishing

Davies, S, (2009), Responding emotionally to fictions. The Journal of Aesthetics and Criticisms, 67 (3), 269-280.

Lamarque, P (1981), How can we fear and pity fictions? The British Journal of Aesthetics, 21 (4), 291-304.

Radford, C (1975), How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina? Proceedings of Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 49, 67-93.

Walton, K (1978), Fearing Fictions. The Journal of Philosophy, 75 (1), 5-27.

Weston, M (1978), How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina? Proceedings of Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 49, 67-93.

Image References

Figure 2: Spilling Green Slime (n.d.). [Photograph]. Retrieved from:

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Liam Mclaughlan

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