by Sandra Parshall
The next time you’re in the fiction section of a library or bookstore, take a moment to really see what’s around you. Each of those novels holds between its covers a distinct world that was created inside someone’s head.
Every year thousands of fictional worlds, inhabited by nonexistent people living out imaginary lives, are written, published and sold. The hidden hunger for made-up stories is insatiable—and unique. No other animal feels a desire, a need, to live simultaneously in the real world and in a wild variety of alternative, imaginary worlds.
Why do people have such a strong compulsion to tell and to hear, to write and to read, fictional versions of human experience? Why isn’t reality enough?
Reading fiction is usually seen as an escape from reality—so much so that some parents worry their children read too much and don’t spend enough time with other children. They feel their children will be isolated and fail to develop the people skills necessary to succeed in society. A series of psychological studies done over the past few years, though, should set the parents’ minds at ease. In every study frequent readers of fiction were more understanding of other people’s viewpoints, better at reading the moods of others and more open to new experiences. They suffered less from loneliness and social isolation than people who primarily read nonfiction.
Fiction has social benefits even when it’s not in print form and bound between covers. In a 2010 study of pre-school children, a team of psychologists found that the more fictional stories the kids listened to, and the more fictional movies they saw, the better able they were to understand other people’s viewpoints and beliefs. Watching television, however, didn’t provide the same benefits. The psychologists theorized that TV shows are too simplistic and don’t challenge the mind and emotions the way complex forms of fiction do.
We need stories in order to make sense of human life. While we’re immersed in a fictional world, we set aside our own beliefs and concerns and adopt the point of view of the protagonist. The two worst things we can say about any fictional character are: “He/she didn’t seem real to me” and “I didn’t care about the characters.”
Most of us don’t read fiction out of mere curiosity, to watch characters we don’t care about move through a series of events we can never accept in the fictional world. We want to understand it, however different it is from our own experiences. Understanding fictional events and people makes us more open minded in the real world.
(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you read Sandra’s interview and learn more about her.)