"As the Gil Fangirls fanned themselves, sighed, and clasped their bosoms rapturously, the guy’s eyes widened with alarm.
“What is happening right now?… he’s fictional, right?”
Right, and wrong. To legions of Gilbert fans, the character may be fictional, but the way he makes us feel... is pure non-fiction."
Fiction is defined as: (1) the class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form; (2) works of this class, as novels or short stories; (3) something feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story; (4) an imaginary thing or event, postulated for the purposes of argument or explanation. Synonyms: fantasy, fabrication, figment (of imagination)
The most basic element of the fictional narrative—it’s not-true-ness—provides a buffer between the ideas the author presents and our own lives. We can confront concepts that frighten us in real life or face up to our own prejudices, preconceptions, and errors more easily, because it isn’t really real. My heart might race with the danger a character is facing, I might be compelled to read half the night to find out what happens, but in the end I will close the book and sleep safely in my own bed (or possibly drag myself to the coffee-maker and attempt to function until nap time). Jack might be terrified of the giant, but we readers know that we won’t be facing any real giants tomorrow. Except, here’s the thing: adults know that there are giants that are realer than real around every corner—failure that presses in on us and makes us doubt our worth, illness that isn’t getting better, a boss who has power over us and wields it unfairly. There are so many situations that make us feel helpless. And guess what? Children know it, too. They know that there is much to fear in our world, and facing those fears head-on can be overwhelming, maybe even paralyzing. Story gives readers a way to sidestep up to their fears, to face them through allegory, and the best stories give examples to inspire us towards right action. When we face failure, we remember how St. George fell again and again, yet returned to battle and ultimately killed the dragon. When we face the crushing weight of illness day after day after day, we remember Pollyanna’s unshakable resolve to stay cheerful, even in the face of suffering. When we face authority cruelly wielded, we remember Cinderella’s continuing kindness and generosity, and the way she forgave when she came into her own power. When we feel small and helpless, we take courage from four small hobbits who somehow managed to unite deeply divided factions and save a whole world. G.K. Chesterton is famously quoted as saying that “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Fiction gives us the distance we need to face our fears, tells us that we can conquer, and shows us how.
There is another aspect of this mental distinctions between the story and real life. In fiction, readers can entertain ideas in a way that we might not allow in a work of non-fiction (e.g., a treatise on spiritual matters). Because it is “not true,” we are willing to think it over without worrying as deeply over the consequences. In a sense, we lower our defenses when we read fiction. We are more likely to accept ideas because they slip in along with the feelings that a story evokes. This particular aspect of the novel is part of what makes it so powerful... and so dangerous. There is a reason totalitarian societies are historically characterized by book-banning. It is also a very real reason to be careful of what we present to our children and what we read ourselves. I would never say that we should ban challenging or dark books, even from our own shelves, but it is wise to be a discerning reader. Some books will cause more damage than benefit. In her twenty guiding principles of education, Charlotte Mason states that “the chief responsibility which rests on [us] as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas.” We must learn to read with our eyes wide open (no pun intended), examining ideas carefully and deciding thoughtfully whether to accept or reject them.
Paradoxically, while fiction provides a unique distance, it also provides unparalleled intimacy. The fact that the person who is me is looking at the object which is a book means that I am always outside of the book. No matter how good an author is, the reader will never become physically part of the story. However, at the same time that we will always be physically separate, fiction draws our minds into another person’s life in a completely unique way. History textbooks can tell what happened, but it cannot open the hearts and minds of its players for inspection. (Speculation is certainly possible, but that is not strictly history.) Technical writers can offer information and techniques—they may even illuminate truths—but they also cannot explain why. The most scrupulous reporters can tell a person’s story, but they cannot imitate the immediacy of that person’s thoughts and reactions the way every good author does. As we read, especially when reading novels, we enter the life, the situation, and the thoughts of characters. Even when we don’t particularly care for a character or her decisions (I’m looking at you, Anna Karenina), we can feel the fears, misunderstandings, errors, and weaknesses that drove her choices. We might argue with her decisions—maybe even slam the book shut in disgust before returning to its pages—but there is a level of understanding that creeps in. Hopefully the reader learns from the character’s mistakes, but before the judgement comes understanding. Empathy. We have experienced her situation, so we know in our bones why she did what she did. Sometimes a quiet, honest voice in the quiet of my own heart whispers, “If I walked in her shoes, would I have chosen any better? I hope so, but I fear not.” Story is one of the most powerful ways—dare I say the only way?—to develop real empathy. Hand in hand with that comes the fact that the lives of those persons are often very different from my own. The cover of a book can become a wide doorway, inviting us into experiences than we could never even imagine. We might be limited by finances, chronology, lifespan, or boundaries of reality, but fictional stories never are.
Finally, fiction can be a playground for readers and writers to explore ideas and their effects. We can play with ideas, following them to their logical ends, and see where they takes us without having to live the actual consequences. Here is where those dark, dystopian novels can really shine. They take ideas—technology as the highest good, sex as a tool for entertainment, people as nothing more than advanced animals, anarchy—and follow them to their logical conclusions. In the right situation, the very darkness of these novels can shine a warning light. (After reading older dystopian novels and comparing them to the current state of our society, one might begin to doubt the effectiveness of this form of communication; however, I digress...)
Fiction is a funny thing. It pulls us in deeply, but always requires that we exit at the end of the ride. It encourages empathy and understanding in a profound way, but still maintains a level of detachment that allows the reader to see, judge, and understand more clearly—clarity that is often sorely lacking in real situations. And of course, the question of true or not true is more complicated than it first appears on the surface. Fictional stories tell narratives that are not strictly factual, but they model reality in some way. The better the model is, the more truth it embodies. In essence, the story itself is not real, but in the best stories we can see something about ourselves, our families, our society, our world. We see spiritual truths, and may be open to them all the more clearly because they are swathed in a protective layer of fiction. (Yes, I’m still knocking the backs of wardrobes wherever I find them.) While the story itself is not real, the way it makes a reader feel, think, and respond absolutely is. In light of the power of this tool, is it any wonder that we give wonderful stories a place of honor on our schedules? They have more than earned it.