How Fiction Can Elicit Empathy

By Susanne Carter

Reading literary fiction helps to build empathy in readers. That is the conclusion of several research studies conducted in the United States and Canada during the past few years. This marriage of psychology and literature even has a name—“narrative empathy”—and has caught the attention of researchers interesting in analyzing the connection.

In this blog I summarize findings of these studies, provide examples of short stories that exemplify empathy, and discuss how writers create characters that elicit empathy.

Narrative Empathy

The conclusion of several recent research studies examining “narrative empathy” is that reading literary fiction fosters empathy in readers by enabling them to “understand the minds of others.” Researchers who have studied brain images of readers have concluded that “seeing or reading about another person experiencing specific emotions and events activates the same neural structures as if one was experiencing them oneself, consequently influencing empathy.”

Reading literary fiction, according to University of Toronto researcher Keith Oatley, “simulates a kind of social world, prompting understanding and empathy in the reader.” He elaborates:

The most important characteristic of being human is that our lives are social. What’s distinctive about humans is that we make social arrangements with other people—with friends, with lovers, with children—that aren’t pre-programmed by instinct. Fiction can augment and help us understand our social experience.

Writing Empathy

Alistair McLeod, Rick Bass, and Tim O’Brien are among the many gifted writers who have created characters with whom we can easily empathize.

In Alistair McLeod’s first published short story, “The Boat” (1968), a Cape Breton university teacher reflects on his adolescence and remembers the first time he began to feel empathy for his father. Although the father worked his entire life as a fisherman, as his father before him had done, the sea was not the father’s passion. When he was not laboring long hours on the water, the father surrounded himself with books and urged his seven children to go to the university, as he had longed to do but could not. Toward the end of the father’s life, the narrator begins to realize the enormity of the sacrifice in personal happiness and fulfillment that his father made to support his family. Readers feel empathy for both the father’s unrealized dreams and the son’s growing respect for his father.

There are only three characters in Rick Bass’s beautifully and sensitively written “The Swans” (2002), but each invites empathy in a different way.   Billy and Amy are a peaceful, older couple who move to the isolated Yaak Valley of Montana, where Bass has lived since 1987. Amy is a baker who fills the valley with the aroma of freshly baked bread and feeds the crumbs to the swans. Billy is a gentle, back-to-the-land woodsman who feels most at home felling logs in the wilderness. When Billy begins to show signs of dementia, getting lost on his way home and showing a preference to drive his pickup truck in reverse, we feel empathy for both his wife and him. We also feel empathy for the unnamed story’s narrator, Billy’s neighbor and friend, who anguishes as he witnesses the gradual demise of a man he considers to be better than himself. He tries to preserve Billy’s self-respect and need for independence, even while he worries about his future. The narrator confesses, “It was real hard: watching him whom I admired and respected, whom I wanted to emulate, disappear, as if being claimed by the forest itself.” (The Hermit and Other Stories, pp. 34-35)

Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River” (1990) is narrated by a 21-year-old college student who receives his draft notice during the summer of 1968. Agonizing over whether to be sent to Vietnam or flee north to freedom, he spends six days alone in a cabin on the United States-Canadian border, trying to make a decision. He is opposed to the war, yet can’t bear the embarrassment of being seen as a coward if he heads north.

In the midst of this emotionally powerful narrative, O’Brien pauses to ask readers:

What would you do?

Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind?  Would it hurt?  Would it feel like dying?  Would you cry, as I did? (The Things They Carried, p. 54)

We are drawn into the narrator’s inner psychological turmoil from the opening lines of the story in which O’Brien confesses to readers, “This is one story I’ve never told before. Not to anyone.” In empathizing with the narrator, we put ourselves in the place of many young men drafted during the Vietnam War who wrestled with their consciences and were tempted, like O’Brien, to cross over the “Rainy River.”

Writers’ Notes:

“Empathy” writers such as McLeod, Bass, and O’Brien are able to build a sense of empathy between their characters and readers because of the empathy they naturally have for their characters and their ability to convey that empathy to readers.   These writers intimately know and care about their characters. They are able to view the world through their characters’ eyes.

The characters created by “empathy” writers are entirely believable and multi-dimensional, whether they are fishermen saddened by unfulfilled dreams, lumberjacks struggling with dementia, or draft resisters plagued by indecision.

“Empathy” writers confess that as characters begin to evolve in their minds, they often begin to take on lives of their own. “Empathy” writers are not afraid to let their characters go and follow them wherever they may wander. They grant them freedom and give them space to roam. They listen to them.

Although “empathy” writers might not have personally experienced everything their characters say and do, they are skilled in researching, observing, and imagining experiences and translating those experiences into emotions that all of us, at one point or another in our lives, have felt.

Share with us…

Do you strive to elicit empathy through your writing? What techniques do you use?