12 Days of Snowed (Day 10): How Fiction Can Create Empathy

Fiction Can Create Empathy

Most of us are only able to experience life through the lens of our own race, gender and personal experience. But fiction can create empathy and understanding. While it’s one thing to consider the perspective of someone else it’s quite another to actually see through it. Experience can help us gain knowledge but knowledge does not give us experience. For instance the knowledge that sunsets are often beautiful is nothing compared to experiencing a beautiful sunset.

In many cases this gap is impossible to bridge but fiction is not limited by impossibilities. In fact, scientists have found that reading fiction can boost empathy.

“…when you are engaged in reading a story your brain automatically puts yourself in the character’s shoes. Throughout the process of reading narrative fiction, the reader learns life lessons from how he or she personally experiences the journey of the protagonist and other characters in the story.”—Christopher Bergland, Psychology Today

This is a pretty powerful tool and, in today’s global world, it becomes more and more necessary to be able to understand another person’s perspective.

Using Fiction to Explore Other Perspectives

While  publishers have tended to prefer fiction written from the most mainstream (generally white, male, heterosexual) perspectives there are many readers who deliberately seek out different points of view. They do this as a way of understanding others. This is why we’re so happy to be able to publish books like Snowed whose protagonist is a multiracial teen girl. If reading encourages empathy how much more can writing do? Author Maria Alexander explains,

“Long before I started writing Snowed, I with many other people lamented the lack of diversity in fiction, especially YA. While white people writing diverse characters isn’t the answer to this enormous, complex problem, I do think it’s our responsibility as authors to be open to writing about people who are unlike us. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is part of the job description. Fortunately for me, when Charity Jones walked into my heart and imagination, I couldn’t *not* write about her. I just hope I did right by her and the other characters. If I didn’t, I want to know.”

Readers looking to get more out of their reading experience should challenge themselves to read outside their own perspectives and comfort zones. While this might sometimes make us uncomfortable it has the benefit of erasing the unintended ignorance caused by a singular perspective.

Reading List for Gaining New Perspectives

Fish, Soap and Bonds by Larry Fondation – From the perspective of the homeless

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan – From the perspective of a Chinese-American Woman, also addresses the perspective of her mother, a Chinese immigrant

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – From the perspective of a Native American youth living on a reservation

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – From the perspective of a North Korean tunnel fighter