Writing 2018-01-14

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 7

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the sixth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 7: Sympathy and Complexity

Wood begins with a question of the value of fiction. Wood asserts that there are three major values. One is language, the exposure to vocabulary and concepts of speech and writing. The second is the world. That is, experiencing life through the eyes of others, even if they are fictional characters. The final value has to do with convictions and beliefs. This is the idea that fiction allows readers to reinforce pre-existing beliefs or develop new beliefs or ideas through exposure to a fictional world. Seeing the world through the eyes of another can elicit sympathy and understanding and this is no less true for fictional characters than real people. In addition, insight into a character can be shown by that character’s own ability (or lack thereof) to imagine the world through the perspectives of another.

Wood believes this is connected to moral philosophy. The ability to sympathize with others or see their perspectives can lead to a character forced to immediately deal with two equal and conflicting moral arguments. Wood cites Bernard Williams, who claims that moral philosophy about the emotional life of a character rather than basic talk about the character’s self or general perceptions. Wood argues this can lead to insight in the complexity of a society’s moral fabric.


This was a relatively quick chapter to go through. I think the insight about a character’s ability or inability to understand the perspectives of others was interesting. This is also interesting in light of the idea that it can be used to highlight emotional perspectives and general moral fabric.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.