Monday, 2 June 2008

The Role of Empathy in Fiction

The role that empathy plays in the comprehension and experience of fiction has been debated at least since Adam Smith’s The theory of moral sentiments was published in 1759. These ideas continue to have currency in such recent books as Suzanne Keen’s (2007) Empathy and the novel and Lisa Zunshine’s (2006) Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. You can find references, and micro-reviews for both these books in our list of books on the psychology of fiction.

We regard identification with a character as the literary application of empathy, and we think that it is one of the most important of the psychological processes that are at work during our engagement with fiction. In 2005-2006, Keith Oatley wrote an article for Greater Good Magazine, on this subject. It is available in our new archive of magazine articles. Also, Raymond Mar has conducted empirical research on this topic, with relevant papers available in our archives or his own website.

4 comments:

Sevahne said...

My comment comes almost a year after this post. You might be interested in a paragraph from an article on the writer Colm Toibin, which appeared in the May 3, 2009 issue of The New York Times Magazine (p. 34). The reporter, Alex Witchel writes,

"While some people strive for romantic love and others crave the love of children, the union most enveloping to Toibin...is the one between writer and reader. One way he makes that bond even tighter is to avoid describing his protagonists. 'If you describe them physically, you actually remove them from the reader, you distance them,' he said. 'By not describing them, you begin to make their perception so intimately involved with the reader's perceptions that it allows the reader to enter into their spirit and become them. It's first-person intimate rather than first-person singular.'"

Raymond A. Mar said...

Sevahne,
Thank you very much for this quote. I am very glad to see that people are rediscovering our old posts. Toibin's idea is a fascinating one, that by providing less information regarding a character the author demands greater participation on the part of the reader. To my knowledge this has not been empirically tested, although it is certainly amenable to such study. Perhaps we will tackle this hypothesis at some point in the future. Thank you again for bringing this to our attention, and for reading.

H.S. Castle said...

Great stuff. I am a new writer. I grew up a Stephen King fan, and that is what makes Mr. King so great--the empathy he demonstrates toward his characters.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much for this comment, and I am glad you like our blog. Our view on empathy is that not only is it a subject that has come to be of great interest recently in psychology, and even in political science, but that it is something that reading fiction is well suited to cultivate in readers. We have found that empathetic abilities are closely associated with the amount of fiction people read.

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