Fiction Readers are Better People

ReadingThe title of this post is a bit exaggerated — but not as much as you might think!

I’ve always loved both fiction and non-fiction, and I have a hard time understanding people who say they don’t read novels because they prefer to read things that are “true.” I try to explain that sometimes, fiction gets closer to the truth than non-fiction because of its capacity to tap the emotional side of the reader. Fiction can convey truths straight to the heart that your head might reject from a non-fiction book.

But it’s more than that, and many times, I’ve found myself at a loss when trying to describe how edifying I find fiction to be. It sounds too crass to say “I learn from it,” because the learning is of a subtle nature. I’m finally realizing that fiction has trained me to be curious about many kinds of people who are different from me, and to want to understand them. I think fiction has expanded my mind and taught me to be more open to other experiences and perspectives, in a far more significant way than non-fiction has, with the possible exception of memoir.

Recent research bears this out. An article in Time magazine reported on two studies that concluded, “…individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”

The psychologists suggest, “The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy.”

So maybe I’m trying too hard to justify my fiction addiction (although I have a feeling many of you will thank me!) I’m simply ecstatic that I can finally begin to understand my instinctual love of a good novel and why I’ve always felt novel-reading was good for me.

Of course, if new studies come out tomorrow saying that reading fiction rots your brain — too bad! I’m not giving it up.

Why do you like reading fiction? Do you think it’s good for you? If you don’t read novels, why not?



Keys to health: Eat your veggies, get enough sleep, and read novels! Click to Tweet.

Why fiction readers are better people – according to @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.

Fiction can convey truth to the heart that your head might reject from non-fiction. Click to Tweet.

The Time magazine article is pretty interesting if you want to take a look:

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Erica on September 25, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    So cool to see other people echoing my thoughts about fiction. Amazingly, I went to grad school with one of the psychologists mentioned in the times article (Raymond Mar) and my husband is now a colleague of his at York University. I think his research is fascinating, and it’s great to see that this subject is getting some press!

  2. Peter DeHaan on August 29, 2013 at 9:00 PM

    After a 20 year hiatus from reading fiction, I’ve jumped back in a couple of years ago — and am the better for it!

  3. JeffreyDavis11 on August 29, 2013 at 7:44 AM

    I’m fascinated, too, by this line of study. Keith Oatley and colleagues also have published a recent study that concludes that reading a literary short story versus an essay can lead to more effective problem-solving and task execution. Why? Because fiction prompts meta-cognition and delays the need for closure (i.e., reading fiction opens our minds).

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on August 28, 2013 at 2:13 AM

    I pretty much stopped reading novels when I started writing them, deliberately. I don’t want to mimic someone else’s voice.

    Now I read a lot of memoir, and history. Most of it falls under ‘research’ for what I write, but some is just for the fun of it. I get through a couple of books a week.

    But I used to LOVE fiction. So many characters have stayed with me, as friendly shadows to whom I can sometimes turn when faced with a problem, and ask…”How would you handle this?”

    Silly? Maybe. But I’ll own up to it.

  5. terryberriest on August 27, 2013 at 2:56 PM

    Right now I’m reading JK Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy,” which features an amazingly diverse cast of characters, all of which Rowling seems to know intimately. I am indeed learning a great deal about human nature from her. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

  6. Ennis C. Smith on August 27, 2013 at 11:01 AM

    Hi Rachelle Gardner! Your article was excellent, or maybe I’m simply a biased fiction reader. What I love most about fiction, is it’s unrestricted ability to force our imagination to interact. What I might see as a bland landscape, you might view as a vibrant rolling hill, based on the descriptive nature of the text coupled with your own imagination. Fiction moves us from the ordinary, mundane to the extraordinary and (most times) unfamiliar. A great fiction novel is a journey; an experience.

  7. dale carroll-coleman on August 27, 2013 at 10:26 AM

    Thanks for your insight.
    I love fiction but find I limit myself, presuming the value is lower than a biography or something to “improve me.” Don’t think self help here. Bleck.
    When I read, “Fiction can convey truths straight to the heart that your head might reject from a non-fiction book” you had me.
    I’m a believer.

  8. Dannie Hill on August 25, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    What a great post– and so much truth. My life as a reader has taken me to places I could never visit and reading has taken me away from problem that I encounter and let me think.

    I believe many novelist, conscientiously or not, add hidden lesson of truth in their writing. The greatest truths hug you; they don’t slap you.

  9. yakinamac on August 25, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    I absolutely agree that there’s an enormous amount to be learned from fiction. I wonder about the research though: the correlation between emotional intelligence and fiction might be because fiction is an work-out for our empathy glands, or it might be because people who are more empathetic get more out of reading fiction.

  10. Cherry Odelberg on August 24, 2013 at 10:47 PM

    Good point! I once said that everything I learned, I learned from books – and I wasn’t referring to textbooks. Even history (WWII, for instance) goes down better and stays in my memory from a well researched, well written historical novel.

  11. Michelle Ule on August 24, 2013 at 5:15 PM

    I think that’s the strength of being a novelist–I can see all sides of the story, which occasionally makes it difficult to choose one.
    Reading fiction enables the reader to reside in different points of view for the same circumstances, which is stretching and also helps the reader be more empathetic.

  12. Roxanne Sherwood Gray on August 24, 2013 at 4:49 PM

    I treasure my fictional journeys and people I’ve “met.”

    I tried to raise children to be racially color-blind, but it was a challenge, living in a community that was 99 percent white. Just before we moved to the deep South, we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a poignant story of racism told through the eyes of a black child. They got the message.

    In homeschooling workshops, I reminded my audience that Jesus taught through stories. Can’t get more relevant than that.

  13. Robin Patchen on August 24, 2013 at 2:01 PM

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Rachelle. When we read fiction, we let our guard down. We don’t come at it skeptically but with open minds. And because of that, the truths conveyed can reach our hearts. (Which is a good argument for reading good fiction, not trash.) Isn’t that what Nathan did with King David? If Nathan had confronted him about his affair with Bathsheba, David might’ve been defensive. Instead, he used a story to help David see what he’d done. That’s an extreme example but a good one, I think.

  14. Cheri- CreationScience4kids on August 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Your comments about fiction helping us understand other people is right on.
    I realized when I was 12 how rotten I am at guessing what’s going on under the skin of other people. I’m also a brain-centered person more than the average. If it weren’t for the characters in books, I’d think everyone was like me, which would be disastrous!

  15. Mercey Valley on August 24, 2013 at 11:18 AM

    I’m not old (depending on what you consider to be ‘old’ 😉 but the amount of elders I have who have said things along the lines of “I never thought of that,” or “That’s a perspective I didn’t consider” still humbles me and makes me feel like maybe I am onto something after all. If fiction continues to play a part in that, then its cred should not be underestimated.
    You have absolutely hit the nail on the head. Fiction taps into emotions and so much more. It contains wisdom just waiting to be found (perhaps because we are not being dictated to when we are between the pages). There are a lot of people who won’t read a self-help (let alone their Bibles), so fiction is a great and beautiful way to convey so much.
    Love it.

  16. Mavis Jarrell on August 24, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    Reading fiction has been a passion since childhood for me as an escape and stress reliever. Now, as an old woman working on her fist fiction novel, reading to escape has evolved into a study on writing styles, character development, plot, dialog and whatever I can discover to improve what I write. Formal education as a writer hasn’t been an option, but I see fiction reading as a learning tool that has helped me develop my own style. I’m thankful for blogs like this that help people practice skills and talents.

  17. Jodi Lobozzo Aman on August 24, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    I thought of myself at a non fiction writer and recently I switched gears. Writing the same concepts, but in a way that I can reach a bigger audience of people who can more easily digest what I have to say!

  18. Connie Almony on August 24, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    Rachelle, you’ll be glad to know C.S. Lewis agrees with you about how fiction can reach the heart better than non-fiction. He felt it a better tool to explain things we can’t touch in real life. Also, even if the fiction is not meant to edify, sometimes we just need a little escapism. What’s wrong with that? I know many people dealing with very serious issues on a daily basis who find great enjoyment in a little story. A light in the darkness. This is a good thing, and writers of fiction should feel good about providing it.

  19. Kate Jarvik Birch on August 24, 2013 at 1:59 AM

    I couldn’t agree more! How many more lives have we lived because of literature? Hundreds? Thousands? Who needs to be reincarnated when you can just read?

  20. Leslie Miller on August 23, 2013 at 7:38 PM

    Novels take me to places I will never go in this lifetime (places that sometimes don’t exist), they stretch my imagination in the most delightful ways, and allow me to hang out safely with people and situations that would never be safe in real life. I’m no adventurer–but in my reading I can be. Novels expand my horizons, so therefore, they expand me. And writing them takes it even a step further…

    Lovely post!

  21. Joe Kovacs on August 23, 2013 at 5:11 PM

    I agree that readers of fiction gain a better understanding of other people. I wonder if there’s a chicken-and-egg scenario here, though. I mean, perhaps readers are drawn to fiction because they are already the type of people who believe in the value of others and fiction is a realm in which they are safe to do so. It is certainly a safer environment in which to care for people (even if said people are imaginary) rather than in the hard, external world we live in that prioritizes utilitarianism and which often judges an open heart as weakness.

  22. Jamie on August 23, 2013 at 4:46 PM

    Agree to everything you say! Plus, like you, my fiction reading addiction is justified 😉

  23. Skye Taylor on August 23, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    I love to read and have never found a need to justify my obsession, but it’s nice to know it’s actually good for me – like the periodic reports for the benefits of chocolate. However, like you, should all those reports get debunked, I’m still going to read any free moment I get and savor chocolate regularly.

  24. Lelaina Landis on August 23, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    I think that for me, the beauty of fiction is that it *isn’t* true. The real world is a serious downer — think about everything that’s made headlines on this week. Not too much good news these days. Fiction allows me to escape to a better place where people treat each other well and dreams come true. Of course, I *do* read contemporary romance almost exclusively, so I’m guaranteed a HEA. 🙂

  25. MaryAnn Diorio on August 23, 2013 at 12:11 PM

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Rachelle. Yes, as you so aptly said, “Fiction can convey truths straight to the heart that your head might reject from a non-fiction book.” Fiction is transformational precisely because it touches the heart, the only place where true transformation can occur.
    MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
    Author of Fiction
    Harbourlight Books, 2012

  26. Carla Laureano on August 23, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    There’s a reason why Jesus spoke in parables–essentially fiction! (Yes, I know it’s not a new thought in the Christian fiction-writing community.) A conclusion drawn for ourselves as a result of metaphor or story is often more powerful than just having it laid out for us.

    • Mercey Valley on August 24, 2013 at 11:18 AM

      Got it in one.

  27. JeanneTakenaka on August 23, 2013 at 9:49 AM

    I’ve always had a love affair with fiction. I discovered that sometimes to deal with my real life, a brief escape to a story life helps me regain a good perspective for handling real life situations. There’s just something about a good story that refreshes me.

  28. Grace Bower on August 23, 2013 at 8:15 AM

    Love these comments and pretty much agree as a reader! A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to read a first novel by Lori Nelson Spearman – The life list. Then a couple of days later I spent a wintery Saturday morning in bed unable to put down still points north one Alaskan childhood,, one grownup world, one long way home by Leigh Newman. The fiction/non-fiction could have been inter-changeable. Both left you pondering life and family issues and gave insights into choices and changes. Highly recommend both as a satisfying and provocative emotional journey.
    Grace Bower New Zealand

  29. Annecdotist on August 23, 2013 at 6:47 AM

    I’ve come across this before in the psychology press. Although I remain sceptical, it’s a reassuring thought as I settle down with a book.