If you’ve ever been immersed in a really good novel, you know what it feels like to dread saying goodbye on the last page. Or to catch yourself wondering what the characters are up to when you’re not with them. Getting into the head of a fictional character can trigger emotional and physical reactions as if the reader were experiencing the same situation herself. A growing body of research shows that connecting with fictional characters can be a vehicle to expanding empathy, compassion and open-mindedness to the diverse lived experiences of real people.
Were you tempted to give wizarding bully Draco Malfoy a good knock upside the head in solidarity with Harry Potter? Did you yearn to protect Pecola Breedlove from the cruel and racist world that made her wish for blue eyes instead of brown? Maybe you even got a little too invested in Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Your brain may have interpreted all of those experiences as ones you actually lived.
Cognitive science shows that the neural mechanisms the brain triggers when reading about emotions experienced through the mind of a character closely mirror those triggered by real-life experiences. That understanding could have significant implications for how to better appreciate the perspectives and challenges of others.
Letting your guard down
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, recently reported on expanding research that shows fiction has the capacity to make readers more open-minded, empathetic and compassionate. That is especially true when the work exposes the reader to the character’s thought processes, or places us in their head, so to speak.
The hours we invest engaged with fictional characters through reading, and the intimate access that gives us to their inner, private lives, may help explain why. At the same time, our willingness to suspend disbelief when we engage with fiction may also lower our defenses and make us more willing to see another’s point of view. For the moment at least, their world becomes ours too.
“Through a diversity of genres we learn about other cultures, different lifestyles, and the common thread that knits all of us together on the planet: goals/desires, pursuit of happiness, love/loss, depression, obsession, climbing a career ladder, prejudices, and the things that bring joy,” explains Emma Rodgers who founded and ran Black Images bookstore in Dallas for three decades.
Imagining a different path
Fiction enables us to consider other realities. Just as we might thrill to living far into the future or in outer space, we can also experience, through fiction, much more of what it is like to live as a person of color in a dominantly white culture, a woman in a male-centered discipline, company or industry, or as the only gay person on a team with straight colleagues.
Aristotle said that watching a tragedy triggered pity for the afflicted character and fear that we could suffer a similar fate. We almost automatically put ourselves in the place of fictional characters and think what it would be like, how we would react or what we might do if we found ourselves in the same circumstances.
“Fiction allows you to expand your horizons and learn some factual history that was not included in your educational experience,” Rodgers adds.
Greater emotional intelligence
Research suggests that people who read more fiction are better at figuring out what other people are thinking and feeling, and that reading fiction increases empathy in a way that factual accounts of similar information does not.
Dutch researchers compared empathy levels among students a week after they read either newspaper articles about riots in Greece or the first chapter of a novel about a man who suddenly goes blind. Those who read the novel chapter scored higher than those who read the newspaper article on tests of empathy immediately afterward, and even higher a week later.
Experts point to several facets of fiction that make it particularly good for breaking through barriers of prejudice and self-protection. Fiction transports us into the hearts and heads of characters in a way we do not experience with objective news reporting. We also tend to read fiction with a willingness to take fictional characters and worlds at face value, compared to the analytic perspective we might bring to a news article or documentary. Novels also allow us to experience large expanses of time, distance and personal transformation that we cannot realistically traverse in our own lives.
What to read now
To broaden your own perspective, or engage your colleagues or team in exploring issues of race, gender and other biases through the world of fiction, consider these suggestions, including several of Rodgers’s favorites. Fiction can provide an entry into critical conversations we all need to move forward together.
American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Buying Time by Pamela Samuels
Chasing Sophea by Gabriella Pina
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Mourner’s Bench by Sanderia Faye
Only Twice I’ve Wished for Heaven by Dawn Turner Trice
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Sugar by Bernice McFadden
The Blackbird Papers: A Novel by Ian Smith
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Secret She Kept by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
The Supremes Sing the Happy Heartache Blues by Edward Kelsy Moore
The Upside: A Memoir by Abdel Sellow
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Wading Home by Rosalyn Story