In my book on writing craft, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells, I wrote this:
Learning to be a human being has a lifelong learning curve, and we can use all the help we can get because there aren’t many good instruction books. Although novels are fiction, they can instruct us on the truths of being human.
Fiction models behavior for us, teaches us what (in the writer’s imagination) works, and what doesn’t work. We like to see characters desire and yearn and attempt because it helps us understand, maybe, what we can do in our own lives.
That was me theorizing, but recently I came across an article about research on psychological reactions to reading fiction, and this fascinating result leaped out at me:
Drs. Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.
In a 2010 study, Dr. Mar found substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” In other research that same year, Dr. Mar found that the more stories preschool-age children had read to them, the keener their theory of mind.
Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
For the whole article, go here.
Finally, I’m rereading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and, especially for young adults, it certainly fits the notion above. Katniss, the heroine, is conflicted about things, as is her audience (and most of us). She isn’t perfect, but she slowly learns of her shortcomings and tries to deal with them. And she takes on evils larger than the personal ones we all face--and that’s an admirable lesson for readers of every age.
For what it’s worth.
© 2012 Ray Rhamey