A couple of years ago in my Advanced Writing class, I chose to write many of the assigned papers about things I knew the best and felt the most comfortable around. Obviously, this includes things related to my fandoms. I did a presentation on the place comic books had during World War II, a compare-contrast paper on the lives and works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and even a cause-effect paper on fandoms themselves. I also wrote this essay on something that I’m especially passionate about: the importance of fiction.
Upon looking back on the work I did in that class, I realized that I could easily publish many of those essays through my outlets in the online fandom. Of course, so of them needed a little extra editing, and I went through them and updated them a bit, shaving off parts here and fleshing out others there. Now that I don’t have to be so strict with them for a class, I can change some things up to make them fit my more conversational writing style and make them easier to read. But I did know that I didn’t want these papers to simply sit in a computer drive or file somewhere, gathering dust infinitely now that they had received their due grades. I still feel passionate about many of these topics, and no matter I’m writing something for school, for The Elven Padawan or another fan publication, or just for fun and my eyes only, I try to pour my heart into it and make it something that I can be proud of.
So to sum up this rather wordy explanation, what you’re about to read is a school paper that I have “revitalized” for this blog. The topic is fiction and its importance to our world, both on the individual’s scale and on one much larger, stretching into a realm of faith and eternity. Because I believe that fiction, though often thought of as frivolous entertainment or, more likely, enjoyed but not truly thought of at all, is certainly worth our time to consider.
The definition of fiction that the Merriam-Webster dictionary gives us is, “something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically: an invented story.” In other words, fiction stories are those made from individuals’ own heads, not necessarily rooted in true facts or actual events. For this reason, many people can expel fiction as insignificant, unimportant, a waste of time. They feel that since most fiction is consumed for the enjoyment of the reader, and since so much of it must be “untrue,” it must not be near as “good for us” as cold hard facts. However, there are many reasons that fiction should never be ignored or underappreciated. I’m going to focus on several that I believe are most important right now, and they are:
- Fiction builds imagination, taking them to places beyond what could ever be experienced in the “Real World.”
- Fiction can make its readers more empathic, helping them understand more about the problems of others as well as more about their own selves.
- Fiction gives readers a new platform to view all their problems on, helping them to gather new perspectives.
Now there is something I think I should clarify before going much farther. Throughout this article, I tend to use words like “readers” to classify those who I really should define as “experiencers of stories.” Fiction isn’t only available in the medium of books, of course. But almost all fictional stories begin their lives as some form of writing, whether that be a novel outline, a movie or radio script, or the scribbling of that famous line from Mr. Tolkien that eventually led to many books, movies, and radio dramatizations. And besides this, I personally feel that reading is the ultimate experience of a story. It somehow manages to take simple scribblings on a page and turn them into pictures, scenes, noises, smells, visceral feelings – when one is reading, deeply engrossed and devoted to their story – this is what I see as the true EXPERIENCE of a story. It’s not just being seen, or heard, or read, it’s being lived.
Now, back to my arguments for the importance of fiction.
Firstly, I claim that fiction helps to cultivate imagination. Of course, some will question what the point in imagination is. I have some arguments for this, too.
To begin with, imagination is vital to human growth. Through imagination we’re are driven to explore the world, to ask questions and figure things out. Because of imagination, fantasizing about what adventures can be had from the seat of a bike, a child can be motivated to taking on odd jobs throughout the summer and saving her money to get that bike. people push to reach goals never attained by mankind before. At one time in history, the idea that humans could walk on the surface of the moon was pure imagination. But on July 20, 1968, this imagination entered reality. Man did walk upon the surface of the moon that day, and again many more times after that. Today many believe the idea that humans could colonize and live long-term on the planet Mars is pure fiction, but it could also become a reality before the passing of too many more years. Every great thing that has been done throughout the history of time started out as a daydream, first brought to life in the imagination of someone who was so dazzled by the dream that they devoted themselves and recruited other to the cause of making it happen.
Imagination is also used to express creativity. While creativity may seem like a simple waste of time to some, in reality, it is one of the greatest gifts to mankind. Creation is an attribute that sets humans apart from other animals. Though some animals do build elaborate houses or create intricate collections to attract a mate, these are part of their instinct. Humans make things simply for the enjoyment of it. Moreover, almost everything that humans do is creation in some form. All forms of art, music, writing, dance, architecture, construction, computer programming; all these, in one way or another, are a form of creation.
Another reason that imagination is important is that it helps to build faith. True faith is believing in something even when you cannot see it, even when it seems that nothing is there. Without imagination, it would be quite impossible to have faith. Of course, one must exercise caution in handing out faith too lightly. Faith given out frivolously, or placed in the wrong things, can lead to many problems. And imagination taken too far can become corrupted, as well. If one wants to dwell constantly in their fantastical realms, or takes things that are purely imaginary as fact, it can cause many issues for them and those around them. But if used correctly, imagination that help one build their faith, and fiction is directly linked to this. If you’re able to suspend your skepticism for long enough to enjoy a fictional world inhabited by half-sized people, nasty trolls the size of houses, and a creature who switches between the appearance of bear and man, then you’re well on your way to holding onto hope in a world that seems determined to suck it away.
Now on to my second claim: that fictional stories can also help readers to understand more about the people around them.
Reading stories is the closest we can ever come to seeing through the eyes of another person, entering their mind, and experiencing things from their perspective. When a story is read, not only do readers see things that are going on around the characters, but they see inside the characters’ heads. Readers understand what they are feeling, can hear their thoughts, and feel their reactions. Through reading these stories, it becomes easier to understand others’ views and perspectives on the world. And through understanding things as they do, readers build empathy for fellow humans. This is yet another reason why I believe that many times, reading is the ultimate way to experience stories.
In the journal Science, there was a study published that relates to this exact topic. This study showed a direct link between reading literary fiction and the ability to understand others’ emotions and body language. Pam Belluck, in an article for The New York Times, writes about this study, saying, “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Subjects who participated in this study were between 18-75 years of age. They were each asked to read excerpts of writing for several minutes. Some subjects were given literary fiction and some modern best-sellers. Others were given non-fiction articles on subjects that were not human, with examples including potatoes and bamboo. After this task was completed, subjects participated in tests that checked their skill at understanding emotions based on people’s eyes. According to the above-mentioned article, “The researchers – Emanuel Castano, a psychology professor, and David Corner Kidd, a doctoral candidate – found that people who read literary fiction scored better than those who read popular fiction.”
Once again, of course, one must be cautious. To be wishy-washy and not firmly grounded in one’s convictions can be dangerous when dealing with these sorts of stories. Readers must be careful to balance empathy with firmness in what they already believe. Well-written, emotional stories are extremely powerful, and if readers are not alert, they can begin to take views that are wrong and oppose those which they already know are true. But this danger is certainly not enough to claim that “Fiction is inherently dangerous!” or anything of the sort. The problem is not with fiction. The key is to always be wary of the stories you chose to experience and to use them to better your understanding of others, even those you may not agree with, while still staying firm in your own beliefs.
Another argument for the value of fiction is that it gives readers a method to step away from the world and how they tend to look at all our problems in it. To take all the pieces and lay them out on a new table, then see if they all still fit. Readers can take a different angle at so many things through the hugely creative world of speculative fiction. They can rediscover known truths that have begun to grow stale from acquaintance. They can pull away the distractions and complications, and get a clearer view of things. They are able to renew their awe in things they have already known to be true and strengthen their convictions in them by seeing them in another setting.
J. R. R. Tolkien is considered by many to be the father of modern fantasy storytelling, with his many volumes of detailed history entirely dedicated to the fictional world of Middle-earth. This man, who spent so much time in his own world of hobbits, dwarves, and angelic beings stated that his own stories were to cause “the encouragement of good morals in this real world by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home,’” (quote from from J. R. R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion, by Purtill, Richard.) And even the Biblical Christ himself told stories in the form of parables, simple sketches meant to convey greater truths. His stories often starred individuals such as seeds, fishermen, and farmers. These were all subjects that his crowds could relate well to, and he used their tales to show, in simple ways, different aspects of Christianity and its theology.
Lastly, and perhaps most dear to the hearts of many of its advocates, is this truth – fiction is fun.
That’s right, I’ll admit it: stories are an escape. Personally, I feel that fiction is something that I can go to when I don’t want to think about the troubles of reality anymore. I can lose myself in another time, place, or even world, and, for a short time at least, not have to worry about what may be going on in the current political situation, or that I’ve got so much work ahead of me before college – and then many more years of studying before I’m able to start the career of my choice. And ya know, let’s not even think about how I haven’t even the slightest idea of what that career should be.
Daily life in this world we inhabit is stressful. No one will deny that. And all people need some amount of fun in their lives, a time to escape from whatever work they have to do every day and lose themselves in another reality. Both reading and writing fiction can serve this purpose. While readers and writers must always be watchful to maintain a balance in their lives and not spend too much time having fun in imaginary worlds when they should be working hard, they will be better off if they make sure to take a little time to devote to this simple pleasure.
This isn’t just my opinion, it’s shared by another great name from the pages of science. In this article, Charles Darwin himself is quoted as saying, “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would have thus been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” Darwin admits that the parts of his brain dealing with things other than hard facts have been greatly impaired through neglection, and this has caused him to lose some amount of joy, as well as has been harmful to his “moral character.”
So to sum it all up, fiction is, and always will be, very important to humans. It will always be within their nature to construct stories and what-ifs, and fiction is an excellent way to stimulate imagination. It is part of humans’ very nature to create, and doing so through fiction has many benefits. Reading fiction helps individuals to be more empathic, and gives them a better understanding of human nature. Fiction also helps readers to better understand their own problems and strengthens their convictions in their beliefs. When used responsibly and to the fullest of its potential it is a tremendous tool, and should never be allowed to go to waste.
This article was written by Shay S., Creator, Chief Editor, and Podcast Host for The Elven Padawan, and first appeared on ElvenPadawan.com
What are your thoughts on fiction and its place in our world? Do you have any fictional stories that mean a lot to you, that communicated some truth to you or helped you through a tough spot and you find yourself returning to again and again?