Fiction and Empathy

Black man and child looking at a book together on a sofa

Did you know that engaging with fictional stories is not only important, but also necessary work? Even seemingly silly stories with anthropomorphized characters aid students' emotional and social development. In fact, recent research shows that engaging with fictional stories can help increase empathy. Empathic people have been shown to exhibit more prosocial behaviors, be more productive, and more creative - all necessary skills - especially in today's social climate. 

Fictional Emotions Lead to Real Emotional Change

The main goal of fictional storytelling is to engage the reader or listener with the characters by eliciting an emotional attachment. Good stories have us rooting for the protagonist and feeling their pain when they encounter challenges. According to Bal and Veltkamp, imagining a fictional world and seeing through the eyes of the characters allows us to actually experience the thoughts and feelings of characters in a story. These experiences are like emotional work outs, helping us strengthen our empathic abilities.

Animated book flipping to a page that says Practice EmpathyConcrete Learning of Intangibles

In education, we often introduce new skills with concrete, or hands-on, demonstrations. For example, allowing students to physically experience quantity by counting beads helps them literally 'get a feel' of the concepts. As understanding grows, we move towards abstraction - like using numbers to represent the beads. But how do we teach social skills, when emotions can't be represented tangibly?Researchers are showing us that storytelling does just that, and humans have been doing this since the earliest days. By engaging with fictional stories, students feel real emotions, getting the concrete experiences they need to learn. As teachers, we can use these vignettes to spur conversations and explorations that move students from those concrete experiences to more abstract ones. This way, students can explore social interactions and better understand the world.

Fiction as a Role Model

One of the best things about fiction is that anything can happen! Good storytellers create entire fantastical worlds that feel real. These imaginative scenarios can provide real life goals and support for listeners and readers. Relating to the dragon-riding heroine who alleviates the suffering of others can encourage students to be more supportive and thoughtful in the real world. Stories that provide multiple accounts of a single event or interaction show different perspectives and demonstrate the importance of considering each. Discussions about characters' personalities, goals, and skills are a great way to help students transfer their knowledge from the fantasy worlds into the real world and their own lives.

How has listening to or reading fiction impacted your emotional education? Do you use fictional stories as a teaching tool? Share with us in the comments!

Inspired to find some fantastic fiction? Check out our Fantasy and Sci-Fi  Subject Area!

New Fiction on Tales2go

12327The Magic Hat of Mortimer Wintergreen by Myron Levoy

In 1890s South Dakota, Amy and Joshua escape from their mean Aunt Vootch. They plan to find their grandparents in New York and manage to team up with a traveling magician, Mortimer Wintergreen, who is also New York bound. Mortimer owns a truly magic hat with a temperamental, mischievous mind of its own. Adventures abound as their way is blocked by outlaws, runaway hot-air balloons, geese, and the persistent Aunt Vootch—but the hat is always ready for action.

12217Our Favorite Day of the Year by A.E. Ali

A heartwarming book following a group of boys from different backgrounds throughout the school year as they become the best of friends. Musa’s feeling nervous about his first day of school. He’s not used to being away from home and he doesn’t know any of the other kids in his class. And when he meets classmates Moises, Mo, and Kevin, Musa isn’t sure they’ll have much in common. But over the course of the year, the four boys learn more about each other, the holidays they celebrate, their favorite foods, and what they like about school. The more they share with each other, the closer they become, until Musa can’t imagine any better friends.

12312Man From the Sky by Avi

Spending the summer with his grandparents in the Pennsylvania countryside is pure joy for young Jamie. There, he fills his days with looking up at the sky, watching the clouds make dragons and knights. There, it doesn't matter that he can't read. The special school he attends is far away. But one afternoon, when Jamie sees a man parachute down through the sky, the boy's fantasy world of clouds is shattered. The man is very real-and very dangerous. How can he convince his grandparents that the man is not part of his imagination?

12155Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

A swimmer whose early talent made her a world champion, Susannah was poised for greatness in a sport that demands so much of its young. But an inexplicable slowdown has put her dream in jeopardy, and Susannah is fighting to keep her career afloat when two important people enter her life: a new coach with a revolutionary training strategy, and a charming fellow swimmer named Harry Matthews. As Susannah begins her long and painful climb back to the top, her friendship with Harry blossoms into passionate and supportive love. But Harry is facing challenges of his own, and even as their bond draws them closer together, other forces work to tear them apart. As she struggles to balance her needs with those of the people who matter most to her, Susannah will learn the cost-and the beauty-of trying to achieve something extraordinary.

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