A good story can save your life

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.

6 Comments

  1. This is an interesting point that often gets lost. We always hear about books providing an escape, or a way to travel without leaving our homes. But rarely does anyone recognize the learning or personal growth readers can achieve through connecting with a character. Do you think it’s because even though we do internalize these lessons, we do so on a subconscious level, while enjoying new settings through books is more visual & therefore more conscious?

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    1. The great thing about novels is the many layers of enjoyment you can derive from them. It’s an escape. It’s a way to shed a spotlight on your beliefs. You can experience deep emotion in a safe setting. There’s nothing else like it.

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  2. I think writers do know this and the pressure to create characters that will influence their readers for the better can be immense. I started writing a novel on Sunday and I have my protagonist’s message pretty well mapped out. I thought 🙂 Having read this post, I’m not only having second thoughts but 3rds and 4ths as well. But then, isn’t that part of the process?

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    1. Yes, Norah. I find that I don’t really understand my characters until I’m two-thirds into writing the first draft. I have to experience the story I’m writing by writing it. Thank goodness for rewrites and editing.

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  3. I love this! I think I have always known it intrinsically but have never thought it through in such certain terms. I think it is one of the reasons I enjoy crafting and reading about tortured characters. I like seeing them overcome these terrible situations from the safety of my couch. It makes me feel like I can easily deal with the petty crap that I encounter in my own life.

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  4. Your analysis of insight was spot on! As a reader, I do find myself drawn to characters like the ones you described, and I tend to gravitate towards the same types of texts for this same reason. When writers create these characters, do you think they intend for readers to gain insight, or is it just reader’s natural reaction to the characters and plot?

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