Misc Posts · Thoughts from Tutors

Reading and Empathy: How Stories Influence Us

By Elizabeth Hansen – Master Tutor

“Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.”

-David Comer Kidd

You’re an 11-year old boy, discovering for the first time he has magical powers. You’re an advantageous millionaire, pining over the one true love of your life by throwing lavish parties to impress her. You’re a father, navigating a post-apocalyptic world to find a reason to hope for your son’s future.

When reading fiction, you become the main character, and you see the world from his or her unique perspective. We, as readers, are able to experience first-hand how someone of a different race, age, sex, ethnicity, etc. feels in any given situation. We interact with those around the character from his or her point of view, seeing how people choose to react in any given situation. This causes us to question ourselves- would we react the same way? What would happen if we were the other person in the scenario?

Whether or not you personally relate to the characters in the novel, you will learn something from them about how the human mind works.

According to a study done by Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “reading literary fiction [or any fiction you want] enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships” with friends, coworkers, and fellow students (Bury).

When tutoring English, I try to incorporate these ideas into my sessions. I take this knowledge, the fact reading can help engender empathy, and apply this to my discussions with my students. Examining plot and figurative language is great, but what I always enjoy the most in my sessions is talking about how the characters and their stories will affect the student’s lives later on. I love discussing with my students the nuances of the author’s choices, and how the character conveys different feelings through body language, dialogue, and their interactions with others. Many times, students are reading books where the main characters are nothing like them, so they’re able to learn about the lives of people completely different than themselves.

One way to help students develop empathy from reading is asking them what they would do if they were the main character in the novel and were presented with the same choice the main character must face. Most of the time, it takes some encouragement to get my students to really consider what it would be like to be in the main character’s situation. Most of the time, the main character’s choice isn’t an easy one, so the student has to put careful thought into his or her answer. It’s fascinating to hear students consider an outside perspective and make educated choices by using the information presented to them in the text. This process allows both of us to grow and approach our own lives from a changed perspective, one now influenced by a literary work.

a stack of journals and writings bound together with black twine, with a pen lying next to them

So even though most of us cannot relate to being told we’re a wizard at the age of 11 (no matter how much we might wish we could), we were given the opportunity to experience seven years of a wizard’s life. We learned that friendship conquers all and love can overcome evil. We even discovered people we view as antagonists in our lives may not be our enemy after all.

Many of us grew up in the generation defined by one story; a story that has taught us not only about ourselves, but about others around us. When we allow ourselves to fully fall into a narrative, release our inhibitions, and be one with the main character, we can grow as people. Their experiences become ours; their thoughts influence our own.

Fiction is more than an enjoyable read on a Sunday afternoon. It’s an exploration of the human mind and emotions and how we interact with one another. Allow yourself to fall into a story, and you might just learn more about yourself and others along the way.


Bury, Liz. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, Study Finds.” The Guardian. Guardian    News and Media, 08 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Images made on canva.com

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