Columns > Published on June 19th, 2023

Does Writing Fiction Make You More Empathetic?

We all know that reading makes you more empathetic. And if you’re like me, you think empathy is a pretty important part of being a good person. Therefore, reading helps make you a better human being. 

So, if anyone ever questions you on all those book purchases, you can tell them that the stacks of paperbacks actually help improve who you are in life. 

And it’s not just reading that does this, but specifically reading fiction. As we engage with narratives, we inhabit characters’ thoughts, fears, and joys. Through this process, we broaden our understanding and become attuned to a variety of human emotions.

Literature also serves as a bridge to unfamiliar cultures, times, and perspectives. Reading lets us encounter people from different backgrounds who grapple with unique challenges. This enables us to shed our prejudices, to deeply understand the kind of people of whom we might otherwise only have a superficial knowledge.

Basically, since it’s impossible to understand everything a person can be via our own primary experiences, reading helps expand our horizons. 

This probably seems intuitive to us bookworms, but there’s science to back it up. An article a few years ago in Discover nicely sums up the research, and a quick search will yield even more for those who want it.

This is a pretty good place to be explicit that empathy is not the same as endorsement... Just because you understand someone doesn’t mean you agree with them.

But if the consumption of literature increases our empathy, what about the production of it? What about the process of writing? There’s a lot less science here, but there is some that proves what we already know intuitively, which is that the crafting of stories also helps a person be more empathetic.

We’ve likely all written alter egos in our careers, and I do not want to downplay the self-awareness that can come from this. But here I want to focus on the times when we write people unlike ourselves. We write antagonists and villains. We write characters of different genders, different nationalities, and different ethnicities than ourselves. As adults, we write children. In our mid-twenties, we might write an 80-year-old.

How does creating these fictional people help us better empathize with them? 

Again, intuitively, there are lots of reasons any writer could rattle off to show how embodying characters increases empathy. We do research; we conduct interviews; we thoroughly read other, similar works of fiction (which, again, is already shown to increase empathy). We sometimes write scenes that aren’t even meant to go into the story in order to better understand our characters.

While all of this seems like it ought to make the writer more empathetic, “seems” often isn’t enough when talking to non-writers, so I looked for something to scientifically back up the claim that it does. I got some results, but there’s not as much available as when it comes to reading. Still, what’s out there is interesting.

One 2019 study examined whether writing fictional narratives could help healthcare workers have a more positive attitude towards people engaging in self-harming behavior. Since healthcare workers are meant to help such people, it’s important for them to avoid bias in order to do their jobs. Two studies examined whether creating a narrative about a woman who smokes cigarettes while pregnant could increase positive attitudes towards the woman. The study showed that “across both experiments, the narrative writing intervention increased participants’ empathy and perspective taking, evoked more positive attitudes toward a woman who smokes cigarettes while pregnant, and increased external attributions for her behavior.”

So, in this case, yes: writing increased empathy.

This is a pretty good place to be explicit that empathy is not the same as endorsement. Empathy is a deep and nuanced understanding of someone’s thoughts and feelings. Just because you understand someone doesn’t mean you agree with them. But it does mean that you can better interact with them, for example, in a healthcare setting. Or, if the person is fictional, in your stories.

This study is also important because empathy is easy when it comes to people who are like us in sentiment. What’s difficult is empathy for people who are not like us. And while all people not like us aren’t bad people, some of them are, and we might have to write them.

For the purposes of our narrative, we might need to write a character who’s a bully, who’s a bigot, who’s a cheater. Even though in our stories these characters are meant to be the bad guys and are not sympathetic, we must thoroughly understand them—empathize with them—in order to write them as convincingly as possible. After all, few things are worse than the two-dimensional villain. We want the bad guys to have complexity just like the good guys, because complexity doesn’t make a character morally good but it often makes a character interesting. And we need empathy to write that complexity.

The act of writing those antagonists, ethically atrocious as they may be in some cases, makes us better people. As does, of course, the writing of the protagonists, the secondary characters—any character with complexity.

Another study, which has a broader scope than just this topic, sums up the idea of how writing can produce empathy pretty well:

Imaginative prose fiction, the product of long and deep thought by its authors, has enabled empathetic understanding of emotions…that we suggest would have been far more difficult to accomplish without the augmentation of thinking by writing. 

I’d like to see more science like this. I’d also like to see if there are any differences in what reading and writing do to increase empathy. In my experiences, reading fiction and writing it feel like significantly different processes. I’m not a neurologist or psychologist, so maybe it’s just me, but I suspect there would be differences in the creation vs. the consumption of high quality, complex fiction when it comes to evoking empathy.

We’ll have to see where all of this goes, but for now there are at least some results that say what we already thought was true: writing fiction makes us better people. 

Get The Art of Empathy at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Empathy: Why it Matters, and How to Get It at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Joshua Isard is the author of a novel, Conquistador of the Useless (Cinco Puntos Press), and his stories have appeared in numerous journals including The Broadkill Review, New Pop Lit, and Cleaver. He studied at Temple University, The University of Edinburgh, and University College London.

Joshua directs Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing, and lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife, two children, and two cats.

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