Reading about fictional characters’ problems is therapeutic. Your own problems pale by comparison. You empathize with the suffering character. You learn from them as they cope, or not.
Sure, at first blush schadenfreude, or “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others” (Wikipedia definition), sounds cruel. But we do come away wiser and more understanding from enjoyably reading about someone else’s problems. Look at the gent above. He’s about to tumble into a deep canyon and possibly drown in the crush of the waterfall. With any luck, and with some clever writing, he’ll manage to clutch at a spindly tree branch or a clump of wildflowers in his fall. He’ll just manage to escape.
Vertigo, or fear of heights, is the problem that plagues Chaz in my new suspenser Eye Sore. In a tense climax, Chaz must overcome his vertigo to stop his dad from selling their beloved Ferris wheel, or Eye. You may enjoy reading about poor Chaz and his adverse reaction to spinning high on the Eye. But maybe while being entertained you’ll also learn something about vertigo and Eyes. Schadenfreude isn’t all bad.
I’m having a great time teaching mystery units at two Vancouver high schools this spring. Tip of the hat to the Lord Byng student who defined schadenfreude this delightful way: “You’re on an elevator. You see someone running for it. You press the close-doors button. Then you laugh as the doors shut in the person’s face.”
I cannot top that.