From Imagined Worlds to Empathy

Fiction is about people. What moves them. How they tick. How they go about solving their problems, or failing to do so.

All this may seem obvious. But it’s obvious with a twist. Sometimes people think that fiction isn’t important, because it isn’t real; or they dislike speculative fiction, because the worlds portrayed aren’t “real”; and lots of people seem to think that if you are going to waste a lot of time reading, at least you could spend it reading nonfiction, since nonfiction teaches you something “useful”.

Well, they have another think coming. I’d like to point you to the work of Raymond Mar, a neuropsychologist who has thought long and hard about why fiction matters. His answer? When you read fiction, you are exercising the same ability to understand other people that you exercise in real life. Here’s one article that makes that point. He has done some studies that suggest that people who read a lot of fiction are more sensitive to social situations (see this article, for example.)

Let’s unpack this a bit. People have to have an ability to model in their heads what other people are doing. The way the mind works, that modeling usually makes people more empathetic toward other people. It’s built in, part of what make us human, as this article describes. So people have to be able to do that, but they also have to be able to read something and imagine that social world. That ability to figure out a whole social world from a narrative is an incredible leap of the mind — from marks on the page to whole imaginary worlds full of social meaning.

And that means stories matter because we can go from the themes and interactions in a story to a much deeper understanding of the social worlds we live in. As quite a few scholars have argued, stories are a meaning making activity.

That’s why being a writer of fiction is about more than entertainment. Never say that what you are writing is “just a story”. If you do your job right, it’s a whole lot more.

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I am starting over with this site. What you read here will focus on something I know better than most: writing and poetry. And especially how writing works, what makes it hard, and how to build skills in writing.

As a writing researcher who is also writing fiction, I have a unique perspective. But more on that anon.


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