Reading:
How Reading Fiction helps you build more Empathy

How Reading Fiction helps you build more Empathy

February 20, 2021

Joe Abercrombie wrote a character in his First Law Trilogy. A crippled war veteran who despises his life. He became a cripple after being tortured by the other side in war. And eventually, he himself became a torturer for his country. He wants to kill himself every day but somehow gets his miserable ass out of bed every morning, and goes on torturing more and more people.

In the face of it, he looks pathetic, miserable, and a terrible human being. Yeah, you feel sorry for him and his miserable living condition but mostly you hate him because he hurts people for a living.

But then one day, he goes out of his way to help another person. Someone who is a victim of discrimination. And you start to question your hate for him. He certainly has been terrible to a lot of people. He certainly doesn’t show remorse for any human he tortures. But he also goes out of his way, uses his influence, and helps another innocent human being. Does that make him better? Does that make you like him? Maybe. Maybe not.

That is empathy for me. Empathy leads you to try to dig deep and understand the real person underneath the layer. You try to poke and prod that the human you know and try to learn more about her fears, hopes, ambitions, and insecurities. Of course, empathy doesn’t mean to like every person you meet. Certainly not. It is rather a mechanism to shift your point of view from yourself to that other person. It also does not mean to find common ground. You should not have to find common ground with a torturer. But it is a tool to translate one’s actions into the original reasons and motivations.

This is where I bring Fiction into the spotlight; especially reading fiction. I think there is little in the world that can improve your emotional intelligence than reading stories. But first I would like to focus on fiction alone.

The Anatomy of Fiction

I recently watched the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit. Let me first tell you that it is a masterpiece and should be watched by everyone. But coming to the point, it is a masterpiece in understanding empathy. The protagonist and antagonist of the story were the same main character. One propels her into action and brings out the best in her, the other drags her down, pulls her away from her friends, and locks her in an empty dungeon. This character is unique to the story and the setting of the series, but it is so relatable to each and every one of us. Author Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones said, we all have demons and guardians in our minds, and most of our struggle in life is to keep the guardians awake and let the demons sleep in their dark corners. For most of us, it is usually the opposite. We cannot put the demons to sleep and just cannot find where the guardians are hiding. Now, chess is a major part of the story but still played little role in understanding the character. We may as well replace it with tennis, skiing, baking, or hand modeling. The internal struggles would have remained the same.

Just by observing the character’s internal struggles, I could acknowledge my own struggles, and consequently, begin to empathize with everyone who is facing the same brick wall. We can try to put to ourselves in their shoes; doesn’t matter whether the shoes fit or not. We would still be able to feel what they feel and perceive what they see.

Perceptive Reading

And now I come to reading fiction. I primarily read Fantasy and Science Fiction. I love new settings and the interesting and creative ways you could design the world, introduce problems and solve them. But if I strip down the fancy, we are left with humans (humanoid, in the case of my favorite genre) and their stories.

These characters go through the same kind of struggle, insecurities, heartbreaks, and joy. They question their morality and decision every step of the way. And we as observers can see this play out of the page. We are frustrated when our favorite characters hurt another intentionally or reject love because they are better off without the added complication. But we also understand them. We empathize. We can read their internal thoughts. We don’t agree with their decisions but we know why they made them. This also goes for the crippled war veteran I started with.

The more you read, the more you empathize regardless of the genre of the story. Of course, it may help you empathize with more kinds of people if you broaden your scope and read a variety of authors and genres. I personally want to read more queer fiction. I have gotten a decent taste of it in NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy. But I would definitely like to read more. (suggestions welcome!)

The words on the page lets us live a second life. A parallel life full of the same emotions and insecurities within our world. Fiction allows us to explore this parallel life and take the lessons from there into our own world. You may not learn how to torture people or play chess, but you will certainly come off better in understanding yourself and others around you… and build empathy.

I will leave you with my favorite quote:

“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

Neil Gaiman


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