Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, examines why nearly all stories are problem stories:
[I]f you think about it, it’s not at all obvious that stories should be that way. You might really expect to find stories that really did function as portals into hedonistic paradise. Paradises where there were no problems and pleasure was infinite. But you never, ever find that.
Why are stories so trouble-focused? You have quite a bit of convergence among scholars and scientists who are looking at this from an evolutionary point of view, and what they’re saying is that stories may function as kind of virtual reality simulators, where you go and you simulate the big problems of human life, and you enjoy it, but you’re having a mental training session at the same time. There’s some kind of interesting evidence for this, that these simulations might help people perform better on certain tasks.
So in the same way that children’s make-believe helps them hone their social skills, it seems to be true of adult make-believe, too. If adult make believe is novels and films, it seems they’re entering into those fictional worlds and working through those fictional social dilemmas actually does, as hard as it may be to believe, enhance our social skills, our emotional intelligence, our empathy.
(Painting: The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Delacroix , via Wikimedia Commons)