Recently, I was honored to find out that one of my Young Adult novels, The Fire Wars, won the Best Teen Book in the 2012 Green Book Festival. This annual event honors books "that contribute to greater understanding, respect for and positive action on the changing worldwide environment.”
It's no accident that my books contain content that I believe is important to making us a better society. One of my majors as an undergrad was Social Ecology, which involved in-depth studies in psychology, criminology, ecology, and sociology; I enjoy taking that knowledge and creating compelling plots that address these issues. Another book of mine, Saving You Saving Me, includes plot points about bullying, abuse, and self-esteem; its content has, in turn, provoked some interesting discussions about these hot-button topics on radio stations all across America.
It's clear that powerful fiction has changed society in the past. For example, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beacher Stowe is given credit for transforming American views about slavery, while books like 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell strongly affected readers' views of government and politics. Fiction can also cause confrontations with established societal hierarchies—the mega-popular Harry Potter series, for instance, was condemned by many religious sects who felt witchcraft of any kind was inherently evil.
How can fiction—stories that are, after all, completely made up by authors such as myself—affect society in such profound ways? The answer, as determined by Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto and a published novelist himself, is that stories create empathy for their lead characters. Because we identify with their struggles, we begin to share their frustration for societal problems that plague them. And because these stories tap into our emotions, their effects can often have more impact than nonfiction.
Oatley set out to prove that very notion, when he took an Anton Chekhov story, The Lady with the Dog, and presented it to one set of readers in its original fictional form. He then gave it to another set of readers rewritten in a documentary-style factual telling, as if it were a true story. He examined the readers' personality traits and emotions before and after reading both versions; those who had read the original short story had greater changes in personality. They even actually became a little like the characters that they identified with in the story.
Psychology professors David Rapp and Richard Gerrig also did a similar study and discovered that readers created such rich representations in their own minds about characters in a novel that they create their own expectations about their behavior based on what they know about them, much as we do with friends and family members that we know well.
The power in the psychology of fiction is important to acknowledge. Keith Oatley summed it up best when he said, in defense of arts funding, "...reading fiction improves understanding of others, and this has a very basic importance in society, not just in the general way of making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding, but in specific areas such as politics, business, and education. In an era when high-school and university subjects are evaluated economically, our results do have economic implications."