In Fiction, We’ve Wrongly Decided That if a Character is Not Familiar, They are Unbelievable.

This causes us to then read with closed minds, less wonder, and less potential for learning.

image by Brooke Meredith

I’ve heard the phrase time and time again, “the main character wasn’t at all like me. I just couldn't identify with them. ” That this is a significant reason for why they didn’t find value in the book.

This, along with much skepticism if a character does not match one person’s (meaning, the reader) experience from that particular group.

As an example, a book might be written from the point of view of a woman who got divorced or decided to have an abortion. Many other women who have either gotten divorced or had an abortion will identify with and find a sense of emotional solace and support within this book. Then, there will be other women who’ve gotten divorced or had an abortion who will disagree and think, that wasn’t my experience at all. This writer is wrong. They have no clue. They might even find offense within the book.

Another book might be written about a man who experienced being bullied, or a man who is transitioning. There will be men who will identify with the perspective and experience the writer offers on the male character who was either bullied or is transitioning. And there will be others who have been bullied themselves or are currently transitioning who will not find their experience within.

Do you see what I am getting at?

No one character is going to speak to each person who has shared a similar experience.

This is because every human being alive experiences things differently. And while we might each have shared similarities in our experiences, there will be even more variances and differences.

Thus, this does not then automatically make the character experience and perspective in the book wrong, inaccurate, immoral, or flawed. Simply because it differs from our own experience or expectations and thoughts on such a perspective.

Only searching for oneself in books also misses the point of reading.

We should also be reading to learn. To be put into the perspective of someone unlike and other than ourselves. Someone who has traveled a novel and varied road from the one which we ourselves have walked.

This is how one finds new insights, life changing ideas, growth, discovery, and wonder in books. By reading about characters who are unlike themselves and reading about experiences different from those they have lived.

You learn little if you only ever read about yourself and what you already know.

I was part of a book club over the last couple of years in which one member frequently remarked, “I didn’t really like it. I couldn’t find myself anywhere in it. So I couldn't connect with the book.” This type of thinking displays a clear lack of curiosity about other lives and perspectives, an inability to put oneself in the shoes of another, and a general closed mindedness.

One huge benefit to reading fiction, as research tells us time and time again, is that by reading about perspectives and experiences other than our own, we learn a greater sense of empathy.

Consider the books from which you have learned the most. The ones which shook your world view, changed how you approach or consider love and relationships, and shifted a perspective or opinion you once held.

These are most likely the books in which you read about someone quite different from yourself. Someone who took a radically different approach to life, love, or other, than you have taken. Someone who has gone through something unlike anything you’ve experienced.

Someone who stirs our hearts, inspires us, prompts us to think, and urges our sense of curiosity and bravery.

We learn the most when our hearts, ears, and eyes are open to others. This is, and should be, one of the main purposes of reading. To garner ideas, perspectives, ways of living and being, which are different from our own. This is what leads to growth and lives most enriched.

Reading in which we enjoy and feel as though we found worth within only if the book reflects and showcases us within? This is self centered reading. It is looking out the window to the vast world outside it and hoping to see your own face staring back at you. And, on not seeing this and instead, being met with a stunning, vast landscape of things you’ve never seen before, losing interest. This is essentially what only reading to find yourself within is like.

It is akin to only choosing friends exactly like yourself. How boring is that? The friendships from which we most stand to learn, grow, and be inspired are those who are different from you.

Yes, one aspect of reading can be and sometimes is looking for and finding ourselves inside the story. An experience we too have had, a way of thinking we also share, this can be incredibly healing, validating, and offer a sense of emotional support and joy.

To get the most out of reading though, we should read for reasons and lessons other than to reiterate what we already know. Some of the characters who are most different from us are those who may teach us the most.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

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