Everyone likes to think they know people. That they really ‘get’ what another person is all about.
Especially writers like to brand themselves as keen observers of human character. But it is in fact the readers that understand other people the best.
Reading fiction strengthens our ability to understand and process human emotions. When we read, we become connected with others in an instant. We share intimate thoughts and feelings with characters we have never met before.
Why do you think the syllabus in literature class is so varied? Why do you think you read both The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God in the same year? Books teach us about others, show us cultures and different walks of life. Fiction is a practical education that teaches us emotional intelligence.
Most importantly, reading fiction helps us develop our empathy.
Fiction helps us to understand others
Fiction is a simulation of social experiences — to steal a term from Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp’s study on the subject. When we read fiction, we put ourselves in simulated or “fake” social situations, and, in a way, we then practice how to navigate these experiences through the characters in the story.
By immersing ourselves in the story and being transported to that plot, we forget about the fictionality of the narrative and we compare it to our real lives. We identify with the protagonist or another character and learn how to see things from their point of view. Since the story is told from their perspective, in fiction we are explicitly told what motivates a character to take an action or to say a particular thing.
Especially for types of characters we might not usually meet in regular daily life, fiction offers us the vital opportunity to understand people from different societies and cultural backgrounds. It cannot be stated enough how important it is to try and see the world from another’s point of view. Reading fiction makes you a more open, more supportive, and more empathetic human.
Fiction helps us understand ourselves
This simulation of daily life can help us be more empathetic towards others in real-life situations. It can also offer personal insights: Let’s say a character in the story has the same character traits, likes, dislikes, and reactions in the story that you would have in reality. You identify with that character and then also with their development through the plot, which might reveal or change how you think about yourself.
Like many other readers, I have a particular fondness for J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. From the first page, the protagonist Holden Caulfield was someone I could really identify with — and still very much use as an example for my own struggles with adulthood. Whenever I re-read the book, I feel calm, knowing that there is someone out there who shares my way of thinking about the world.
It goes to show that fiction is a powerful tool for developing empathy and strengthening overall emotional intelligence. Every time I pick up a book, I consider new perspectives, new ideologies. With every character I encounter, I tried to ask myself “Why are they like this? Why do they do the things they do? What can I learn from them?”. Trying to find answers to these questions in fiction also sharpens my ability to answer these questions for people in real life. And I think we can all agree that we require a lot more empathy in this world.