Reading is an incredibly rewarding experience.
It’s therefore only natural that scientists and philosophers have tried to explain why we read and why we draw such a deep pleasure from it.
Some explanations make more sense than others. But in general it seems science still has to cover some distance before it can give us a complete and working explanation of why when our brain is on books it works the way it does.
That said, while I appreciate knowing about the inner workings of my mind, I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I love reading is that when I open the pages of a book I meet a lot of interesting people.
The reluctant hero
With interesting people I don’t necessarily refer to nice fellows, but to memorable characters, those with multifaceted, complex, and idiosyncratic personalities.
In fact, while in real life we rely heavily on schemas and stereotypes to carry out our everyday activities, in fiction, such schemas and stereotypes are among the things we most abhor.
And rightly so. Schemas and stereotypes make a story shallow and predictable. After a few pages we can already guess how everything is going to end. Not because we are some sort of geniuses or foreseers, but only because with stereotypes and schemas repetition is the only possible result.
In addition, while in real life when we abandon stereotypes we get to know the real people behind them, in a book this isn’t possible. Those writers who use only stereotypes don’t have anything else to show to their readers but a blank page.
Of course, original writing doesn’t mean you have to create over the top situations and characters all the time–by the way, as a reader I get tired of such types of characters quite quickly.
Rather, it means you should strive to add layers of complexity and idiosyncrasy to your otherwise perfectly normal characters.
I mean, if your protagonist has superpowers, but then he passes his day just burning ants with a lens, I don’t want to read anything about him. Instead, if she’s an old lady whose abusive husband has just died, and so she decides to try her hand at painting, I’m all ears.
Because, stepping out of the ordinary doesn’t mean stepping right into ‘superhumanhood’.
This is also the reason I love reluctant heroes. Reluctant heroes don’t go about with their guns drawn out, keeping a watchful eye for any adventure they might encounter.
Rather, reluctant heroes look a lot like everyday people, like you and me. Yet the moment comes when they are asked to carry out a sort of mission that, if accepted, will catapult them in the realm of true heroes. Irrespective of the outcome.
In a way, I believe reluctant heroes work well because readers can more easily empathize with them. But then it’s always a matter of how they are handled. In fact, reluctant heroes are a literary trope, just like classic heroes and every other kind of hero for that matter.
In fact, literature isn’t about inventing ever new devices and tropes, but about shedding light on life, on real life. Books are small portable laboratories we can tinker with at will.
Some of these experiments may be banal. But others will be able to turn our world upside-down. It’s a risk, of course. But a risk worth running.