For some people, the fictional characters from books can exist beyond the page. In a recent study, researchers discovered that readers not only hear the voices of characters while they read — but that some also hear those voices when the book is closed. It’s an experience that researchers call “experiential crossing” — and may explain why certain characters, like Hermione Granger, have become a very real presence at real-world events, like Women’s Marches around the world.
To determine this, professors at Durham University collaborated with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and The Guardian to survey people about the experiences they felt while reading. The collaborators shared a general questionnaire about readers’ perception of characters and their voices to 1,566 people. Their responses didn’t have to pertain to any particular genre, although 82 percent of readers said they felt particularly engaged while they were reading fiction.
More than 50 percent of the respondents heard the voices of characters while they read either all or most of the time, and one in seven heard character voices to the same degree as hearing a real person in the room. But, perhaps most interestingly, 19 percent of the respondents reported hearing the voices of characters beyond the book, hearing character narrations of — and reactions to — their own real experiences. Experiential crossing is known, more technically, as “auditory hallucination-proneness.”
“Last February and March, when I was reading Mrs. Dalloway and writing a paper on it, I was feeling enveloped by Clarissa Dalloway,” reported one respondent. “I hear her voice or imagined her reactions were to different situations. I’d walk into a Starbucks and feel her reaction to it based on what I was writing in my essay on the different selves of this character.”
When it came to hearing voices only when reading, the researchers were able to split the experience into two main types: internal blending and external blending. The former typically happened when the reader personally identified with the characters, imagining the voice of the character as a modified version of their own voice. External blending, in contrast, occurs when the voices of people that readers have actually heard IRL, like those of their friends or actors who have played the character, become the voice of the literary character. One respondent wrote that even if they had read the book first, “the actors would generally override anything I might have originally imagined” — which, for Harry Potter fans, is likely why the voice of Hermione Granger has become the voice of actor Emma Watson.
While anecdotal evidence suggests that hearing characters’ voices while reading is a common experience, this study is one of the very few data-driven examinations of it. The researchers explain that imagining a voice can help readers better experience a text in multiple ways, such as helping them create mental imagery of what they are reading and build empathetic bonds to characters.
It is less clear, according to this research, why those voices may bleed into real life. However, the idea that characters could influence the emotional reactions of real people makes sense in light of other research. In a study titled “Harry Potter and the Deathly Donald?” political science Professor Diana Mutz found that, in a survey of 1,142 Americans, people who had read the whole series were less likely to think favorably of President Donald Trump — much like the author of the series, J.K. Rowling, a vocal critic of the president. Mutz argues that this is likely because the messages within the series are opposed to Trump’s own messaging — but it’s also likely, in light of this new research, that when Potter fans are opposing the president, Hermione might be cheering them on along the way.