Wish Fulfillment – Living Vicariously Through Protagonists

cover_ukA short while ago, I wrote about Three Parts Dead, and spoke about its special brand of workplace wish fulfillment. In that piece, I mentioned that I wanted to do a post on wish fulfillment in general, and how the ever popular Kingkiller Chronicle employs it stealthily to great success. Well there’s no time like the present, so let’s talk about one of the most powerful writing techniques for immersion – wish fulfillment.

Wish fulfillment is one of the easiest way to drive immersion in books. It takes your hidden fantasies and secret desires and projects you into the life of a book character, letting you live out your dreams. One of the most common types of wish fulfillment in fantasy is the farm boy with a destiny trope. A seemingly ordinary farm boy discovers inner greatness and goes on to become the most important person in the land. It is not a stretch to say that most people have felt they were ordinary, and desired to go on to do something great. These books allow you to fulfill that fantasy, and that projection is what makes them so immersive and beloved. One of my favorite things in stories are magical schools. When I was a child I never could get enough of academics (I was one of those), and I love taking trips back to campus in fantasy books that let me relive those glory years. No matter how old I get, a magic school never seems to cease to enchant me.

However, many argue that wish fulfillment is a cheap trick used in the place of actual writing. By tapping into the secret base desires of everyone, readers are often much more forgiving of book’s flaws in their read through. This causes many critics and fans to claim books with wish fulfillment are of a lower quality than others. I believe that is pure nonsense. To demonstrate my point, let’s talk about The Name of the Wind, a book many regard as incredibly well written, and talk about how it’s one of the most clever forms of wish fulfillment I have seen.

There is a really interesting effect in psychology when you ask people to rate themselves on a variety of skills. We all like to believe we are talented, though most people are semi-realistic and understand that they aren’t the best at everything they try. However, there is an interesting effect where people almost always tend to rate themselves as “above average” at everything. No one likes to be in the bottom 50% in life, and while it is hard for people to lie to themselves that they are great at everything, it is easy to believe you are at least decent at most things.

Kvothe, the protagonist of NotW, is a representation of this is the mentality . Kvothe is not the best at anything, constantly coming up in second and fading behind the leaders. However, there is nothing he ever seems to be bad at. Anything that Kvothe picks up he is good enough at to dazzle and wonder, but never so good that he draws an inordinate amount of attention to himself and spoiling the illusion. In this way, Kvothe is relatable to the reader, fulfilling that deep held belief of accomplishment the reader has, when in fact he is alarmingly skilled in a way none of us are.

Now this in no way means I think that Patrick Rothfuss is a bad writer. Kvothe’s ability to tap into a primal form of wish fulfillment without the reader realizing is incredible. It is a smoke and mirrors trick I have never seen before, and it took a truly talented writer to pull it off. It shows you the absolute power of building in wish fulfillment into a book and hopefully helps explain why I was so impressed with Three Parts Dead, and its own form of workplace wish fulfillment.

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