In between the healthy recipes and the diagrams of how to do various excruciating exercises, I found an article on the literature table at the gym about reading. “Does reading fiction make us nicer?” it asked. So of course I took it home to ponder.
The article summarized a study by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Costanzo that was published in Science Magazine in 2013. (http://bit.ly/2EyjxkA) The authors theorized that reading fiction makes people nicer, in that while reading fiction, people have to be able to imagine themselves in the characters’ shoes. “People reading literary fiction had to fill in gaps about the emotional content of the characters in the stories.”
The researchers found that the process of reading fiction exercised readers’ empathy muscles. (I’m still trying to find a reason why this particular article was mixed in with 10 new recipes for kale and how to do a proper squat. Exercise!) The ability to identify what other people are thinking and feeling obviously helps our social interactions and our personal relationships run more smoothly.
The authors considered fiction readers playing an active role in figuring out why the characters behave a certain way, and believe this skill will carry over into real life.
I believe romance authors, as well as readers, exercise their empathy muscles with every story.
Romance novels rely heavily on exploring the characters’ emotions, and as authors, we’ve got to come up with plausible explanations for why our heroes and heroines react the way they do. Their actions have to be consistent with the personality traits we’ve given them, and if they don’t seem to make sense, we have to be able to show why.
One of my first critique partners, way back when, used to constantly ask “Why?” when commenting on my stories. She was gentle about it, as in she never said, “Why on earth would any sane person react that way?” Or “How does this advance your plot, even a little bit?” My answer was usually that I thought it would be amusing. I’ve since learned that amusing isn’t really enough.
I never thought about it before reading this article, but as I continued to write, I found I had to stretch my own empathy muscles.
Otherwise, each of my characters had the same personality as the others. In the same way authors are advised not to have each character speak exactly the same way, each character can’t react and feel exactly the same way. Each one has to be their own person with their own quirks and their own way of looking at the world.
Along the same lines, I tended to confuse my critique partners, and potentially my readers, if my each of my characters reacted the way I would react to a situation. It’s that “Why would any sane person react that way?” again, and if I said that’s the way I’d react…well, refer back to the “sane person” part again.
It would be interesting if these scientists studied writers and how much empathy is required to develop and portray the emotions of so many diverse characters.
I can only hope that having to do that makes all of us nicer people.