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Fiction can mean more than “real” stories

Every now and then I run into one of those misguided people who think fiction is not serious reading. (They might be the same ones who think action films and video games aren’t art.) I feel a bit of pity for them because they don’t know what they’re missing. I mean, I can empathise with struggling to read or to make time for reading. But that’s not the issue with these poor souls who dismiss an entire category of reading.

And I’m very specifically referring to fiction, not just stories in general. I know people who will happily read biographies, but balk at fiction, often with some declaration along the lines of, “I just like real stuff.”

I’m not writing primarily to convert such people, though. (And there are more of them in the wild than you might think.) Sure, I hope to get some of them to take a kinder view of fiction. I’ve even written a whole other essay to argue for words as being every bit as important as actions. But the more I’ve thought about why fiction matters, the more I’ve come to believe that even we who like fiction could use a reminder of why stories matter and what we gain from our investment in them.

It’s too easy, even for us lovers of fiction, to take it for granted. Even we are prone to have a low view of stories and a misguidedly high view of “facts”, to so prize objectivity that we lose the immense value of the subjective. We can easily forget that for much of human history, people were shaped not by breaking news but by the stories that helped them make sense of who they were.

So let’s consider three important ways fiction matters: it helps you…

  • …see reality more clearly
  • …gain extra lives
  • …navigate uncharted waters

Fiction shows reality more clearly

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”

— Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize winner

It’s true that fiction, by definition, is “not real.” The problem is seeing that as a bug when it’s precisely the point. Even those of us who love fiction sometimes see it as an escape from reality. But fiction, at its best, is more a new entry point into reality than an escape from it. It lets you step back from reality in order to see it from another angle, another perspective. 

I learned early in childhood to view life as one grand adventure, and when I faced challenges—well, those were only to be expected on an adventure, weren’t they? I didn’t get that perspective on life from “reality”, though. I got it from the stories I read between ages 7 and 10: from books like The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. (The many issues with Enid Blyton’s work flew over my head at the time, thankfully.)

And I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve imagined beloved characters from stories in facing decisions.

Fiction grants extra lives

Stories in general allow you to live the lives of others, to gain from their experience. But the advantage of fiction is that it takes advantage of the fact that our brains don’t distinguish between stories that have actually happened and stories that could happen. In other words, it allows us to expand far beyond the range of history into that of imagination. I myself don’t buy into reincarnation and past lives, but fiction brings me about as close as I could get.

And come on, who doesn’t want extra lives? 

When you’re playing video games and you’re down to one life, you’re extra careful, take fewer chances. You walk around feeling anxious about what might come next. But if you’re lucky and you get an extra life or some health pack, you become bolder and you’re willing to try out a few more things. Similarly, we have only one life and can’t experience all of reality, but through great fiction, we can compress more time into our lives: it’s almost a superpower

This ability to live vicariously through fiction characters is why they continue to feel real long after you’ve put the books down. It’s also why fiction is a powerful way to build empathy, compassion—and more personally, as even a form of self-therapy, especially when you consider the next point…

Fiction maps uncharted waters

You know how some songs just seem to perfectly describe a feeling? Good fiction is like good lyrics in that way: it helps you name things you didn’t know had names. You could also say it’s like a good map, in that it helps you identify points as places and recognise places your feet have never trod. Where nonfiction offers great photographs of reality, fiction helps you find your way.

Know what else is like that? Therapy. As I wrote in a previous essay:

[T]he only way you know what you look like is by looking into a reflective surface. That’s the only way you ever saw your face, your mouth, the colour of your eyes. You can’t look directly at them, only indirectly, through something else, whether that’s a car window or a still pond. You need something to serve as a mirror.

A therapist is a mirror (for your mind)

That’s why it can be so helpful to think about therapy is as a means of understanding your story, processing it and rewriting it. And fiction is a great way to think about that without the possible intimidation that can arise from considering historical figures. Take this line from Ursula K Le Guin that hit me hard when I read it the first time:

“I go where I am sent. I follow my calling. It has not yet let me stay in any land for long. Do you see that? I do what I must do. Where I go, I must go alone. So long as you need me, I’ll be with you in Havnor. And if you ever need me again, call me. I will come. I would come from my grave if you called me, Tenar! But I cannot stay with you.” She said nothing. After a while he said, “You will not need me long, there. You will be happy.”

— Ursula K Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle Series 2)

Those words were spoken by Ged at his parting from Tenar after they’d come to care deeply for one another and I’d been invested enough in their journey to recognise how much it hurt Ged to say them. But most of all I recognised in them a feeling I was familiar with but never had words for.

What’s fiction done for you?

Those are the three ways fiction has been most meaningful to me. Your turn: which most resonates with you? Or which other ways you have found it meaningful that I didn’t mention? Email or comment and let me know!


If you liked this essay, check out my older essay on what I learned from reading the first book in the series, The Wizard of Earthsea.


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