Thursday, November 21, 2013

Do books make us better people? - a post by Nicole

I don’t know about you guys, but I have spent the last month and a half thinking about that study that came out about how reading literary fiction leads to greater empathy and social intelligence. Has everybody seen this from the NY Times?

I had such a strong reaction to this news. At first I felt kind of smug about it. Shouldn’t we all be proud that our work has some real social value? If you read or write literary fiction, you may be actively contributing to making the world a better place! As a reader, you may respond to someone in your life with greater compassion and understanding—or through your work, you may be making others more compassionate to each other. Isn’t that amazing? Even if the advances for literary fiction tend to be rather low…and even if these kinds of books typically don’t sell hundreds of thousands of copies…Hey, wait! Why aren’t more people reading literary fiction? They really should be.

After thinking it over, I started to question the results of the study. It seems they didn’t include non-fiction books that were person-centered. Certainly there are many non-fiction books that might also lead to increased empathy (for example, THE STORY OF MY LIFE by Helen Keller). And while the study suggests that commercial fiction may not have the same effect (one of the head researchers of the study speculates that it may be because commercial fiction is more plot-driven, or perhaps the characters are less nuanced and complex—more “sympathetic,” which is admittedly can make for more pleasurable reading but may not force our brains to work as hard)…Does that mean that commercial fiction is less socially valuable?

Then I felt a little bit annoyed. Who cares if literary fiction makes us better people? Is that really why we read or write?  And does everything have to be sanctioned by science to be worthwhile? Does reading or writing have to have some practical value to make it an okay way to spend our (rapidly diminishing) free time? Can’t we just read for pleasure, for escape? For no good reason at all?

The whole thing really made me stop and think about why we read—why I read. Books have been a big part of my life ever since I was a little kid, riding to the library on my bicycle with the streamers on the handlebars and the empty basket that I would load up with books of all kinds. Reading was—and continues to be—a way to understand the world and the confusing, flawed, and beautiful people in it. Without books…well, I might not be lost, but I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today. And if nothing else, I’d be bored.

My favorite part about reading has been the opportunity to feel connected with rich, complex, nuanced characters. I still remember characters in books that have meant so much to me that they have made me want to emulate them (for example, Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Characters in books have helped me to contextualize the behavior of some people I might otherwise just think are awful (for example, the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND). Sometimes characters are morally flawed, “bad” people, but we like them anyway. Just like in real life.

If I had just one piece of advice for writers of any kind of book—literary or commercial, fiction or nonfiction—it would be not to neglect the people in them. Put time into character development. Your sentences may be elegant, your plot perfectly structured…but without characters who feel real and who jump off the page, the story will probably fall flat.

Does it matter if literary fiction makes us more empathic? I don’t know. Maybe not. We don’t necessarily read to become better people, nor do we write to make the world a better place.  But if you take time on character development, you really can’t go wrong.

What do you think? How do you breathe life into your characters? Do you have any tips to share with other writers here?


  1. Nice post with great insights. I like to make my characters as well-rounded as possible. I think no matter what the book's genre, if readers can empathize and feel for my characters they'll enjoy the story on a deeper level. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for a thought provoking post. Characters are what I love in a novel. As a child like you I wanted to emulate the characters I read about in books. For a time after reading a book I would become that character that I loved so much. I left notes in my teacher's boxes at school a la Harriet the Spy, became Addie Loggins from A Paper Moon, and insisted to carry all my stuff around in a cigar box, and I played the LP from the movie endlessly dreaming about my life as Addie. There are so many more characters from books that shaped my life. Characters is where we get to feel something good or bad, happy or disappointed. Yes please. We have to continue to develop unforgettable characters to figure out ourselves, and to give an opportunity for our readers to relish in the lives of others whatever the outcome.