Paradox of Fiction

What is the Paradox of Fiction?

Have you ever cried during a sad movie, or felt scared when a character in a book is in danger? This happens to most of us. We feel real emotions for made-up stories and the people in them, but we know those stories and characters aren’t real. This is what we call the Paradox of Fiction—why do we feel these strong feelings for things we know are just pretend?

So, let’s break it down with two simple definitions to understand it better:

Definition One: The Paradox of Fiction is when our heads understand something isn’t real, but our hearts respond as if it is. It’s like knowing the monster in the movie isn’t going to jump out of the screen, but still feeling your heart beat faster.

Definition Two: This paradox is also about the puzzle of our brains. We think we should only feel real emotions for things that actually exist. But when we read or watch fiction, our emotions don’t always listen to our brains—they just react.


The idea of the Paradox of Fiction was first talked about by a thinker named Colin Radford in 1975. He explained it with three ideas that don’t seem to make sense together:

  1. We have genuine emotional responses to fictional characters and events.
  2. We have emotional responses only to what we believe to be real.
  3. We do not believe that fictional characters and events are real.

When you look at all three, they clash. How can we feel real things for stuff we know isn’t real? That’s the riddle of the paradox—things don’t add up.

Key Arguments

  • Emotional Responses Are Genuine: When we feel something during a story, those feelings are real. If you cry when a character is sad, those tears are not pretend—even if the story is.
  • Belief in Reality is Necessary: We usually only feel sad or happy about things we think are true. We don’t cry for a made-up person’s pain because they’re not a real person with real pain.
  • Fiction is Not Real: We all know that stories and the people in them come from someone’s imagination. They’re not part of the real world, just the world of the story we’re enjoying.

Answer or Resolution

Even though this paradox is confusing, thinkers have tried to come up with answers. Some say our feelings about stories aren’t as real as feelings about real life. They call these ‘quasi-emotions.’ Others think you don’t need to truly believe something to feel something. And then, some say we let ourselves get lost in the story, feeling things even when we remember it’s not real.

Major Criticism

Some people don’t agree with the Paradox of Fiction. They say the second idea is wrong—we don’t need to think something is true to feel emotional about it. They believe our feelings can come from our imagination, without any real things involved.


  • Feeling joy when your favorite team in a sports movie wins the big game, despite knowing it’s just a script.
  • Getting angry at the villain in a book, even though that person never really existed.
  • Being scared while watching a horror film, aware that the monsters are just actors in makeup.
  • Crying during a fictional character’s death, knowing fully well it’s not a real event.
  • Feeling inspired by a hero’s speech in a novel, even though the hero is just an idea from the author’s mind.

All of these examples show the Paradox of Fiction because they are all about feeling something real for something that is not. It’s interesting how stories can seem so alive to us, making us react as if they were.

Practical Applications

Thinking about why and how we get pulled into stories isn’t just for philosophers. It helps writers make stories that really grab you. It can help teachers use stories to make learning stick. And it shows psychologists how our emotions work and why we can care about people and things that aren’t real.

Artists need to know this to tell stories that really hit home. Psychologists can better understand what makes us feel for others. And teachers can use the power of stories to make learning more interesting.

Related Topics

  • Suspension of Disbelief: This is when we sort of pretend something is real so we can get into a story.
  • Empathy: Empathy is being able to feel what someone else is feeling. And we can feel empathy for fictional characters too, as if they were real people.
  • Imagination: Our ability to make up stories and characters comes from our imagination. It’s what allows us to create entire worlds that don’t exist but feel very real.

These topics are like cousins to the Paradox of Fiction. They each explain a bit about why we can feel such strong emotions for made-up stories.

Why is it Important?

Understanding the Paradox of Fiction helps us see how powerful stories are. They can make us feel all sorts of things, just like real life does. This teaches us how our minds work and shows us the ways we can use stories to talk to each other, to teach, and to understand our own feelings better.

For most of us, stories are a big part of life—they entertain us, teach us, and sometimes even change us. The Paradox of Fiction shows how stories can touch our hearts and minds in surprising ways.


The Paradox of Fiction is really about the mystery of our emotions and beliefs. We don’t have all the answers yet, but exploring this paradox helps us learn more about ourselves. It shows us that the feelings we get from stories aren’t just for fun—they connect us to the ideas and emotions that make us who we are.

Every time a story moves you, it’s a reminder of the cool things human minds can do. We’re able to care about things from our imagination as if they were true. That’s the magic of stories and the puzzle of the Paradox of Fiction.