The Hidden Benefits of Being an Avid Fiction Reader
Guest author, Reese Ryan, explains why walking a mile in a fictional character's shoes is particularly important in the world we're living in today.
There’s a growing scarcity of empathy and compassion. Without the ability to identify with someone else’s pain or the desire to alleviate their suffering, it’s nearly impossible to see an issue from their perspective. Thus, the increased polarization we see in our current society. In such times, some might think it frivolous to spend time reading fiction about pillaging pirates, pampered princesses and bad boy billionaires.
However, there are many practical ways to hone our capacity for empathy and compassion. According to the University of Toronto, being an avid fiction reader is one of them. A Washington Post article revealed that those who read more fiction are more empathetic and more understanding of others. In short, avid readers of fiction tend to be more “human.” When we closely examine the act of reading a compelling, deeply emotional piece of fiction, it makes perfect sense.
What makes fiction truly powerful is its ability to transport us to another time, place or situation. Victorian England. Middle Earth. The post-apocalyptic nation of Panem. A fictional small town like Pleasure Cove or Magnolia Lake. But for me, a vivid setting is simply icing on the cake. What captivates me as a reader is the character’s inner turmoil and deeply emotional personal journey.
It can be fun to imagine ourselves inside the adventurous world of a Viking or the glamorous world of a rock star or a hot billionaire. Money may be no object for affluent characters. Yet, they are human beings who wrestle with painful struggles. On the other hand, it is equally compelling to follow the journey of a grief-stricken widower, the caretaker of a child or parent with a cognitive disability, or a military vet trying to adjust to civilian life.
Getting inside the character’s head and experiencing their journey teaches us much about others. We are given insight into struggles with which we are personally unfamiliar. This impacts our views about the world and the people in it.
Have you ever been so deeply entrenched in the character’s thoughts and emotions that you felt their joy, pain, love or grief? A good story needn’t bash us over the head with its underlying message. Immersion in the life, mindset and deepest emotions of a character we are deeply invested in is not only entertaining, it’s instructive. If we allow it, exposure to a different viewpoint can be an eye-opening experience. Shades of gray become apparent in areas which previously seemed starkly black and white. More importantly, we are developing the empathy and compassion which allows us to acknowledge and respectfully discuss our very real differences while honoring each other’s humanity and embracing the commonalities that unite us.
Has reading a story about a character with a different background than yours ever changed your perception of people in the real world? If so, you’ve experienced fiction’s power to strengthen our muscles of compassion and empathy.