There is a psychological reward that readers of novels seek that is seldom discussed. What is it? The answer may surprise you.
When you need cold information– technical facts, historical details, expert analysis–there is no better source to turn to than non-fiction books. But when you want to learn about human nature, novels are an excellent alternative. A great story must not only entertain; it must educate. But it must do so without being preachy or moralistic. How do great authors pull this off? By understanding a psychological need that we all share but is seldom discussed in explicit terms: the hunger for insight.
Good stories often start with a protagonist whose life may not be peachy but is relatively stable. The discerning reader understands that the trouble our hero is experiencing is (at least in part) due to poor choices, erroneous beliefs, or maladaptive behavior on her part.
An incident throws our hero’s life out of balance, forcing her into reluctant action. The protagonist wants nothing more, at this point, than to restore her life to what it was before the inciting incident, but missteps and mounting complications make that impossible. When our hero hits rock bottom, two things may happen. She might cling to her mistaken beliefs, leading to a tragic ending. Or she experiences deep personal change, which allows her to surmount all challenges and reach a new, more enlightened, state of being.
What is it that allows our hero to change? A new insight. It may be insight about the nature of the world, insight about those around her, or insight directed inward, about herself.
When our hero suffers, we, the reader, suffer with her. But we suffer safely. The protagonist is our surrogate. She allows us to experience life’s tribulations on an emotional dimension without any physical, social, and financial risk. Likewise, when our hero experiences a breakthrough that allows her to gain insight, we achieve that insight too.
The insight is the story’s message, the moral of the story. To gain a new perspective, the reader must absorb the story’s message in the company of intense emotion, wherein lies the story’s power.
But why should readers crave new insights? Because those insights, those lessons learned vicariously prepare us for life, for whatever situation may befall us. Great novels are more than entertainment–they are essential for survival.