Reader Empathy

Whether we intentionally do it or not, we look for ourselves in media. It’s a natural thing to want to see your experiences reflected in what you consume. The caveat with that is, for as many people that share your exact experiences, there are that many people who’ve had different experiences with the same thing. When we come across stories that echo our experiences but don’t quite hit the mark, it’s hard to figure out if it’s a bad thing, or if it’s just a different thing.

The Run-Down

So the TLDR is that last year, I watched a movie that was otherwise very good but had a plot point that really angered me. Not going into detail, the plot point involved an assault and how the victim handled it afterward. It was very hard not to see what happened through my personal lens of experience. I was watching the movie with my partner, and we ended up shutting it off because we were both in a general state of wtf. I was heated at whoever wrote the movie’s script because I felt the handling of the assault and the response was hot garbage.

Fast forward a few days.

I generally try to finish everything that I watch or read, because I think that’s the best way to have the most informed opinion/experience with something. I still felt frustrated with the movie but had a hard time pinpointing how to get over it. When I do that, I like to think through the situation in my head with myself (full conversations, don’t judge) and after finishing the movie, I came to a couple of conclusions, the most important being:

  • My biggest issue with the plot point and my initial anger were mainly because it wasn’t my own experience with assault and how I had/would handle it.

What this has to do with reading

So do you judge the narrative because it’s not your narrative, or do you accept it as someone’s narrative independent of your own? Sometimes, we have to do the latter. Sometimes we have to buck up and be okay with the story not being about our own experiences and being empathetic when they’re not. I remember thinking about this particular movie and realizing that if the movie had been a book, it probably would have been called problematic, and having to question whether I would appreciate having someone call a fictional portrayal of my own experiences problematic because it didn’t mirror their own.

Hint, hint: I’d Be Pissed

I think this kind of realization is important especially when it comes to reading. Books, perhaps more than movies, connect people to characters in intimate, long-lasting ways. It’s very frustrating sometimes when a book has a narrative that feels like it’s going to follow your experience to the T, only to have to go left on you. What’s more frustrating is when it feels like you’re being cheated out of the connection that you were expecting. It’s very easy to write that narrative off because it’s wrong, but to someone else, it’s a mirror.

I tend to think of instances like this as moments of reader empathy. I’ve experienced this before like with this movie where I read an experience I would expect to connect to and I don’t because it’s not one-to-one mine, and my initial reaction would be to call it a bad portrayal, or at worst, problematic.

I see it a lot in reviews of books where people can’t relate to a certain character because the experience wasn’t theirs–or like me, they’re frustrated and angered over the way the experience was handled. I think disappointment is a valid feeling. I also think that seeing a character as independent from us as readers is important for developing empathy with the people we read about in books, which gives you a fuller understanding of the story as a whole. If you can empathize with characters and their experiences and emotions when they’re not exactly like you, you can understand how they fit into their story, its themes, and enjoy it regardless of whether or not it’s about your experiences. We should consume stories about people who are different from us as much as we consume stories about people who are very much like ourselves.

The Point, Probably

Fiction is an integral part to how we not only interact with the immediate experience of reading a book, but with other people as a whole. Reading has already shown to improve emotional intelligence in children, and reading literary fiction improves empathy.

When we read about people who are different from us (even if that difference is in how we handle an experience,) we learn how to connect with physical, breathing human people walking along the street. How we empathize with and understand characters in fiction impacts how we view actual people, and though anecdotal, it’s not hard to see how the lack of reader empathy can translate into the lack of empathy outside of the page, too.


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