Why Fiction Matters
From oral tales to printing press copies to the modern, ubiquitous e-book, stories—specifically fiction stories—have been part of the human tradition for generations. In their earliest iterations, fiction stories were not viewed as separate from mythology or history; they were part of it. And from its early roots, development of fiction began focusing on relatable characters and possible—if not plausible—scenarios to incite, excite, and entice.
But why do we look to fiction novels? What do they do for us? Why does fiction matter?
Fiction allows readers to do hard things without risk.
Think of an exciting fiction story you've read, maybe a crime thriller in which the protagonist was a detective, or a murder mystery that involved the heiress of a well-to-do family. Most readers won't identify directly with the protags of those fiction stories (unless, of course, they are detectives or wealthy heiresses), but readers get to experience, for approximately 350 pages, what life could be like if they wore the protag's shoes.
Each one of us is born under circumstances that we didn't choose, cannot change, or that can be difficult to change. But reading fiction stories allows us to experience all the things we wouldn't otherwise get to experience, to connect with folks we wouldn't otherwise meet, and to learn lessons we may not get to learn otherwise.
Through fiction, readers get to see the inner workings of police procedure or revel in the gradeur of a family estate. They get to track a killer or hunt for clues, unravel motives, and solve complex cases—but they do it from a safe distance. Fiction readers get to do hard things, new things, without the risk of failure or true risk of loss.
Fiction novels are stewards of the imagination.
Have you ever come across a passage in a fiction novel that seemed to reach inside your skin and speak to your inner child? I mean, didn't you picture yourself riding the train with Jacob in Water For Elephants, or stroking a finger along a sculpture in the ice garden in The Night Circus?
Just me? Anyhoo...
Beyond the risk (or lack thereof) of reading fiction, there lies a deeper connection between the reader and their imagination, the well of creativity that exists inside each of us. We like to imagine new worlds, new situations, meet new people, to give in to our inner children. And most readers have favorite novels that get to the very core of who they are in all their whimsical glory.
Fiction communicates the imagination, the what-ifs, the fantasy, the ideal. It communicates the hope of creation at its base form, regardless of the content of the fiction itself. Because when we read fiction, we create. And when we create intense, graphic mental simulations of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and scenarios, a veritable wardrobe of experience for our inner children to walk through just like the Pevensie children did to get to Narnia.
Fiction develops deeper emotional intelligence.
If someone asks whether you can be properly moved by something that isn't real, many of us would be quick to say 'no.' After all, we're (mostly) rational people, aren't we? We've put away the bogeymen of our childhoods, dispelled the monsters from our closets. We no longer spend time with our imaginary friends.
But fiction tests this bit of rationality. To really understand a good work of fiction, readers must be moved by the irrational—fake people and fake circumstances, as examples—through rational means, real emotions like empathy and sympathy, among others. To do this, a good work of fiction allows readers to connect with characters and see the world as the characters see it.
And there have been studies done on the connection between fiction and emotional intelligence, which confirm this link. Art Markman, Ph.D. stated, “By showing you the world through the eyes of other people, literature can give you a window into others’ thoughts or feelings.” (More here.) And because we can view the world through another's eyes, we learn to empathize with the other, even the fictional other.
I mean, I'm not the only reader who wept during The Fault In Our Stars...just sayin'.
So, why does fiction matter?
It would be easier to provide all the reasons fiction doesn't matter.
(Spoiler alert: There aren't any.)
Want to share why fiction matters to you? Add your comments below.
Happy editing and writing!