Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos.
One aspect of fiction, whatever its genre or length, is it does reflect on our behaviour. It isn’t flattering either, most of the time. The classic fairytales, for example, call evil out for what it is and the kind of evil shown in them (such as cruelty to step children) is something we see only far too often for real.
Stories tell us what we know. Even in the most fantastical of settings, there will be something we can identify with (otherwise, why would we read such things?).
And human behaviour is the direct reason for any story. We use stories to try to make sense of the world we know (and perhaps more than ever in crisis times such as the one we’re going through now with the situation in Ukraine).
What Stories Can Be
Stories can be a comfort. They can be a challenge. They can help us escape for a while. Why do we often want to do that? Maybe because we’re tired of the human behaviour we see on the news … just a thought.
In a book at least we can be reasonably certain there will either be a happy ending or an ending which is suitable for the story. On the face of it the ending to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is not positive. It is sad and deeply moving but it is appropriate for the character of Sidney Carton – and reading about courageous characters can be inspiring. I never want to read a story where the villain wins – it would be too depressing for words. (We can get all that on the news).
In fiction at least, you can ensure the villain gets their deserved comeuppance or sees the error of their ways.
We know we can’t arrange life to our liking. We can arrange for characters to win out who deserve to do so. I’ve always loved the classic fairytales for that. Even as a child, I knew life wasn’t always fair. Bullies don’t always get stopped. In fairytales they are.
Best of all, for me at least, is when a character despises an old man or woman who turns out to be a powerful magical character in disguise. The character is inevitably punished and has to be redeemed/show atonement in some way. Beauty and the Beast is a good example of that.
Stories then can show us how we would like life to be – fair. They also show us human behaviour so often isn’t fair.
Characters in fiction are effectively stand-ins for what we know here. There are the heroes. There are the villains. There are the ones who get caught in the middle of events and have to decide which side to take. Reading stories gives us the opportunity to follow what the characters do and ask ourselves would we do that? If not, what would we have done in that character’s stead?
Being able to see where a character comes from encourages the development of empathy. As a species, we cannot have too much of that.
We root for our favourite characters to succeed in whatever they are doing because we would be doing what the character is doing if we were in their place. Equally we can be torn when the character does not know what to do.
We can gain insights into our own behaviours and motivations here. It’s unconsciously done too but think back to a novel or story you’ve read and you’ve thought somewhere that oh I wouldn’t have done that… I know I’ve done this many a time.
It has always made me wonder what I would do instead and I read on to find out how the writer has brought about resolution. Usually I end up agreeing with the writer’s conclusion. There was a point to the character behaving the way they have. It just wasn’t one I anticipated but that in itself again increases understanding of why characters (aka us) behave in the way they do.
Now at the start of this series, I focused on animals in fiction. I mentioned then that animals can represent us. Animal Farm by George Orwell is probably the best known example of that. Again not flattering but sometimes it is more palatable to get a message across in a story than it is to tell it “straight”.
People listen to stories, they take them in, they remember them. I am sure, as a Christian, that is why Jesus told parables. Certainly the parable of The Good Samaritan resonates. It’s also why Aesop’s Fables are effective (and an early example of flash fiction too). I always loved the one with the lion being helped by the mouse.
And, again, animal qualities can be used in fiction for our characters – we can have our fictional people being as brave as lions, as timid as church mice etc. But we use these things to make our characters more real, more human, reflective of us, even if they are anything but human.
Fiction has its role then to play in helping us to understand each other and ourselves then. Genre fiction can show particular aspects to our behaviour – crime reflects criminality and the need for justice to be done, romance reflects on love, fantasy and sci-fi explore what could be in alternative worlds and what could be in this one.
Themes such as power, love, justice crop up time and again because these things are important to our humanity so naturally they are going to turn up in our stories as well. Stories matter. The big themes matter. There is truth behind them. And the truth is not always pleasant.
The great irony here is that you can’t have a story without conflict. There has to be a point of change brought about by the conflict. That conflict can be between two characters – one wants something, the other wants to stop them gaining it because they want it, and only one of them can win out here. We read to find out who wins.
Yet deep down do we really want conflict at all? I don’t think so. The best place for conflict would be between the pages of a book. Sadly, we have still got a long way to go on that.
In the meantime, stories tell us truths about ourselves in ways that are easier to accept. I wouldn’t listen to someone lecturing me on end for the need to be fair, say. I will read a book which has that as its theme and where the plot shows how being fair is the best thing to be.
There is a lot of psychology behind fiction because it is all rooted in us and how we act and react.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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