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The Facts About Fiction
We tend to undervalue fiction.
The truth is, fiction may be one of the most influential tools in history. In fact, much of history as we know it is more or less a cleverly contrived fiction meant to encourage national pride and loyalty, to set a standard of ethics and morality, and to instill a foundation of wisdom that can guide future generations to make choices and take actions that preserve society rather than erode it.
It’s time to start taking fiction seriously.
Sawyer Jackson and the Long Land
When I was growing up, I heard all sorts of stories from my uncles, my grandparents, even friends of the family. There was one tale about my grandmother chasing my uncles and their friends out of the house while wielding a butcher knife. She’d grown tired of their shenanigans—and while she was cutting some vegetables for cooking she took after them with the knife in her hand, leaving all of them in awe and respectful fear of her for decades to come.
The problem is, it isn’t true.
Not entirely true, anyway. Because it actually did happen. It just didn’t happen the way my uncles like to tell it.
Granny really was cutting vegetables. And the the boys really were acting up. But she didn’t just snap and suddenly start chasing them with the butcher knife.
They goosed her first.
Also, she didn’t chase them at all. She just turned on them and told them to get out and go play in the yard. And though she said it loudly, and may have even taken a step toward them, she wasn’t angry, and she wasn’t really chasing them. In fact, she went right back to cutting vegetables the second they were out the door.
I actually think that story is a lot better than the version my uncles tell. But the first version stuck, and it gets retold to this day, because the people involved have made it a part of their identity.
And when Granny passed away, that was one of the stories that everyone told, because despite the near-psychotic implications of it, they found the whole thing endearing. It comforted them, and made them smile. It’s a piece of her that they carry with them, always.
That’s the power of a good story. It doesn’t have to be fact to be true.
That’s the power of a good story.
It doesn’t have to be fact to be true.
Slightly further back in history, by maybe a few thousand years, humans were using fiction to do more than just remember someone fondly.
Myths are a form of storytelling that has been in use practically since we invented language. Wise old storytellers would sit in front of fires and spin tales about gods and monsters and the foibles and follies of man, often to audiences listening with rapt attention. They didn’t have Playstations or Netflix back then, so …
But aside from being an evening’s entertainment, these stories served a higher purpose. Woven into these tales were warnings and instructions. “Do that, and the gods will smite you. Do this, and the gods will favor you.” Generations of students learned right and wrong, learned the history of their people and culture, and learned about their heritage at the knee of a storyteller.
In some cultures, such as Celtic and Greek and even Native American, storytellers were revered to the point of mysticism. Druids and oracles and shaman all used stories to preserve cultural traditions and teach a new generation how they were expected to behave, and the consequences if they didn’t. And these stories became bindings. They contained great power, in the eyes of these people. They were like spells, of a sort, imparting the power of culture and wisdom onto the listener. Fail to heed them at your peril.
Later, when these oral histories and mythologies were recorded on tablets and papyrus and rectangles of wood, they could be spread around even further and with more reliability. Stories tend to change from teller to teller, but the written stories could be the definitive, unchanging benchmark.
And yet, even with it all written down, the stories changed anyway.
Reading from Greek mythology today, for example, can yield a whole new set of insights than the Greeks may have gotten from hearing the story thousands of years ago. Where early Greeks might have taken dire warnings from these tales, and used them to avoid committing heinous social errors or wandering into troubled cultural ground that might displease the gods, modern readers may take lessons that inform ethical choices, or inspire creative leaps or generally just nudge us in the direction of wisdom.
And that’s good, because that’s the point of good stories.
Ultimately, the story changes as much with the person listening as with the person telling.
Parables Ain't Terrible
An interesting thing happened on the way to modern living. Fiction became the primary means by which truth was imparted to the masses.
For example, Christianity, one of the most prolific and enduring religions in history, actually relies heavily on dozens of well-spun fictions.
Although they’re usually referred to as parables.
Christ used to spin these little yarns himself, to thousands of people at a time. The story about the sower and the seeds? Parable. The story about the prodigal son? Parable. The story about the good Samaritan? Yep … parable.
Fiction—targeted specifically to teach his followers a thing or two about life, about the kingdom of heaven, and about how to act like a moral and upstanding human being.
Similar to parables are fables—some of which actually pre-date Christ by hundreds of years. These are a literary genre all their own, and they tend to aim for explaining a moral or principle in a nice, entertaining tale. Fables differ from parables in small ways—primarily in the use of animals and anthropomorphic objects. Parables tend to stick to good old human beings or everyday, normal objects as their subject of choice.
Both of these serve the same purpose, in general. They are woven together and told in an attempt to entertain, to inspire, and (most important) to instruct.
Facts vs. Fiction
Can parables, myths, and fables contain more truth than actual facts?
Marketing ... You Knew It Was Comin
In the modern world, we tend to think of fiction as being encapsulated in our entertainment choices. Books, graphic novels, television shows, films—these are fiction. Everything else is clearly a fact.
But the truth is, fiction plays a freakishly heavy role in our day-to-day decision making.
Is the Most Interesting Man in the World really the most interesting man in the world? Does the CEO of Jack-in-the-Box need someone to check out that bulbous albino head of his? Also, I’m pretty sure Flo’s job at Progressive doesn’t really include signing anyone up for insurance.
These little fictions are ok with us for the same reason parables and fables are ok. We know they aren’t literally true—but they contain a version of truth regardless. In the case of the parables, that truth is meant to teach us right from wrong and save our souls from eternal damnation. In the case of marketing, the truth is that we like eating tacos at midnight sometimes, and it’s nice to know where we can fill that need.
Impossible is just an excuse to think of new ways to prove everybody wrong.
Arthur C. Clarke and the Made Up World We Live In
That’s the beauty of fiction. It isn’t burned by the need to be true in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a way for us to take a new perspective on the world, and to create new ways for us to understand what’s going on around us. It gives us a means of creating our own world as we go.
I write fiction for a living—both the kind you find in novels and the kind you find in ad spots. But in that fiction, I have tons of leeway for getting at the truth. I can define reality however I want on the page, but what makes it really cool is that it can often become reality off the page.
Back in the 1945, Arthur C. Clarke was writing about satellites in geosynchronous orbit before we’d even managed to get into space. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, wrote about cell phones and iPads and 3D printers–give or take– decades before they became a reality. H.G. Wells was writing about men on the moon, and the space suits they’d need to survive there, before most people on Earth had even seen a car for the first time.
Fiction often informs reality.
People are freakishly weird, when it comes to possibilities. We tend to think that things are impossible until we just … don’t think that anymore. The four-minute mile was impossible until somebody did it. Putting a computer in anything smaller than a two-car garage was impossible until someone invented microchips. Hopping the Atlantic in a single day was impossible until somebody went and did it.
Impossible is just an excuse to think of new ways to prove everybody wrong.
Fiction is how we deal with the impossible. We imagine a reality that works better for us than the one we currently live in, and then we start working backwards. We reverse engineer reality to fit the thing we’ve imagined. And then, suddenly, iPhones. Satellites. Faster than light travel? Give it time.
Knowing that fiction is this powerful tool for shaping the world, for shaping reality itself, isn’t it time we start giving it a little more credit? Storytelling isn’t just something to entertain us, it’s something that shapes us. So we should respect it. Treat it with reverence. And, ultimately, get better at it.
And that’s the truth.