The Truth about Fiction
Every one of us has written a few good stories. An embellishment here, a dramatic pause there, and we’ve spun a yarn that’s engrossed our audience. On a good day, someone will even take the time to congratulate us on a job well done. While the praise we receive for weaving tales that teach, entertain, or inspire our readers is rightfully fulfilling, many of us are unaware of the value one can mine from a single original story. The truth about fiction is that when it’s done well, it can immerse its audience. Only fiction can introduce a multitude of perspectives in a single story. Fiction can be presented in the past or present tense, or in the first or third person. It can come from a limited or omniscient perspective. It can help a metaphor blossom and sustain a theme without faltering. Great fiction is experiential, and when we use it correctly we can deepen our readers’ perspectives—especially their empathy.
We are each limited by our demographics. Our gender, age, ethnic or cultural background, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, political affiliations, and disabilities influence our perspective. Our individualized view has certainly helped us find our way in the world, but it also can distance us from people whose experiences are different from our own. Yet people benefit from the richness diversity has to offer because those who only seek out perspectives that mirror their own close their minds to the wealth of worldviews that make our planet prosper. While it may be impossible for someone to truly walk in the moccasins of another, through fiction we all can escape into a perspective of someone far removed from us. We can laugh, cry, love, hate, and eventually appreciate a viewpoint that is foreign from our own.
We writers must remember that as divided as society may appear, human emotions unite us all. While we should each follow the old adage “to write what we know,” what we know isn’t just the people, places, and events from our lives—it’s the emotional connections we have to them. The best stories are about characters and locations that are “stuck” together through family bonds, love, circumstance, or otherwise. These stories explore what it means to not give up on someone or someplace, but rather to persevere despite the obstacles before them. Readers love conflict, and the richest land to mine for it is the fertile field of our characters’ emotions.
We must draft characters that are conflicted. Some readers prefer heroes, others villains, but everyone loves someone who rises above their own deficiencies. Readers want a story about a character who overcomes a great obstacle because those are the stories that can inspire an audience to push beyond their own shortcomings. This inspiration, or at the very least vicariously living through a character’s story, is why we read fiction. Great fiction makes us want to be better, even if that means simply rooting for characters who are seeking to fulfill their potential.
So we writers need to continually ask ourselves why readers will want to read our fiction. The answer should always be that our stories have the power to guide our audience through a dramatized perspective that will enrich the time they spend with our words and, if we play our cards right, some time thereafter. Our words should offer them a unique view into the lives of someone who may be altogether unlike them, yet who reflects a humanity they can all recognize.
Readers always want to read stories that remind them that people are people. We all have the potential for greatness, and we all are held back by our imperfections. We take refuge based upon our self-imposed demographic biases, but we want to believe in a better world where mankind can peacefully coexist. In order to reach this utopia, we need opportunities for understanding. Or, to put it another way, we need everyone to experience the collective catharsis that is not unlike what happens when we experience well-written fiction.
You may say that I’m a dreamer for thinking that fictional stories can help change the world, and you may even dismiss me outright for stating as much. Yet, the people all over the planet who are sitting at the edge of their seats laughing, crying, and living experiences unlike their own is evidence of the empathy that fiction can teach us—empathy that may one day cause them to reach past a demographic barrier to help someone they would have otherwise dismissed. Fiction can help topple walls and prevent literal and metaphorical border fences from being erected. The truth about fiction is that it can contain a power that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.