A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the use of story in relating real-world events, and how this engages us on an emotional level (and you can read that post here). But what about fiction?
Fiction obviously uses story to engage us, but using imagined events. We might become wrapped up in the plight of the protagonist, but we know it’s all make-believe. It’s entertainment, with an emotional pull to keep us reading/listening.
But there’s more to it that that.
Think, for a moment, what children do when they play. They make up worlds and characters, and seem to exist in a make-believe world. But this play is important, because it enables the child to learn. Through pretending to be an intrepid explorer, or a doctor, or a teacher, the child is learning how they might cope indifferent situations. They are developing an understanding of the way the world works.
Fiction works in a similar way, by allowing us to explore settings and situations that are unfamiliar to us. And there’s a quote from Stephen King that encapsulates this—’We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’
Obviously, that doesn’t mean we read a book like Salem’s Lot to learn how to deal with a town overrun by vampires, and The Shining isn’t a manual on how to cope with a deranged writer when cut off in a creepy old hotel. But these books do deal with characters facing situations that they never even considered could happen. They deal with characters who have to make difficult decisions, often requiring them to go against what they would normally do. In The Shining, Jack’s wife doesn’t want to leave him, but she had to think the well-being of both herself and her son. In Salem’s Lot, as more members of the town become vampires, characters are forced to confront their own feelings towards friends who are now turning on them.
But the characters don’t always make the best decisions. King says the horrors help us cope—they don’t simply give us a list of actions to follow. The best stories don’t tell us what to think, even though they might nudge us in a certain direction. Sometimes, the lesson in the book (the ‘coping strategy’) is not obvious. Of course it isn’t. Nobody likes being told what to do, and if our fiction did just that, how many of us would continue reading?
Sometimes (most of the time?) what we learn from a work of fiction will depend on us at that particular time. The same work can have different meanings, all equally valid, for different people. Take Lord Of The Rings—is this a simple tale of good overcoming evil, or is there more to it? Frodo cannot let go of the ring at the end, so what does that tell you about either the power behind the ring or Frodo’s character? Maybe Sam is the real hero—the one with no real power, who doesn’t want to be there except that he is loyal to his friend, but who ends up carrying Frodo for so much of the story—and the lesson here is that we can look past our own fears and limitations. And what of Golum—is he villain or victim, and what does his plight tell us about ourselves? There is clearly a warning about greed, but is there also a fatalistic lesson in how our desires can control us no matter how hard we try to fight? And what does the way we view him tell us about ourselves, and how we see others who are ‘evil’? Does our attitude to Golum change as we realise how he has been manipulated?
It’s a vast book, and there’s clearly more that can be drawn out—but only when we start to question. We put ourselves in the characters’ positions, and ask what we might do (or what we’d like to imagine we’d do, if we didn’t freeze with fear the moment an orc appeared).
Brandon Sanderson put it this way—’The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’ And a good storyteller will often leave the answers open. A well-crafted story will force questions into our minds, where they will ruminate for days. Think of the character of Hannibal in Thomas Harris’ books (such as The Silence Of The Lambs), and ask why we are drawn to an unrepentant cannibal?
America Psycho is another book that provokes questions. On the face of it, the book is a nasty tale of a sociopathic killer. But it’s also about money and wealth. It’s about power, and the lack of it. Why is Patrick Batemen such a despicable creature? Is he simply evil, or has something pushed him to this point? Is he, like Golum, corrupted by a power that he never saw coming? And what of the revelation (spoiler alert) that the killings are all in his head? Does this make him less of a monster, or does the way his mind convinces him that he has killed make him more evil?
Are there definite answers to these questions? I’d say no. Bret Easton Ellis is well-known for not explaining his book, and that is good. The reader needs to pull whatever they can from his stories. And that means one person’s answers will be different to another’s. Because we are all different. We all have different questions, and seek different answers.
But surely this is all academic. We’re discussing fiction, and characters who don’t exist in real life. What difference can this make to our day-to-day lives? So what if we analyse—it’s all make-believe.
Hopefully you’re ahead of me here.
We think, and we question. The answers we arrive at affect the way we think, and that alters the way we see the world. And, when so many books are, at their heart, about humanity, and about the way people respond to others, this alters the way we see those around us. It alters our whole world-view.
We could make these changes through other means—philosophical discussion, or ‘education’ (whatever that means). If we want people to think a certain way, we could simply tell them. We could come up with a set of rules, or instructions. But stories speak to us in a way facts and data cannot. Stories reach deep inside and force us to step outside ourselves. Stories show us a world far wider than anything we can imagine.
And that is why, throughout history, fictional stories have been used for the advancement of mankind. From camp-fire tales, to religious parables, to morality tales, stories have always been at the forefront of guiding us in our journey through life.
Yes, fiction can change us. Think of the anti-war sentiment in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, or the challenge to prejudiced ideas in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Think of the chilling vision of the future in George Orwell’s 1984. And then think of the books you’ve read, the books that have stayed with you. Maybe the ones you re-read, the ones that are still opening up their secrets. The stories that are still making you think.
I’ll finish with another quote, this time form Neil Gaiman. His stories are larger-than-life, with fantastical elements, and I don’t think it is any surprise that he writes for both adults and children. He understands how those age-old primal stories can be a force for good, and he knows that we should never lose that child inside, the one that play-acts as a way of solving difficult problems before they even appear. He understands the power in stories. And that is why he said, ‘Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’