“How can fiction be more real than reality? It makes no sense. Nothing is more real than reality.” —random commenter on Reddit.
I don’t take issue with this statement. I take issue with its implication: fiction can’t teach lessons applicable to the real world.
I occasionally see this idea posed by people who, for one reason or another, don’t like reading fiction. They may enjoy it but still think that it offers nothing more than a fun pastime that could be replaced with any other fun pastime.
After all, it makes sense: reality is always the most real, and fiction, by definition, ignores some rules of reality. Therefore, if you want to learn a lesson about how to deal in the real world, you can’t ever turn to fiction. Right?
Wrong. For three reasons.
1. Fiction serves as a textbook illustration.
Fiction is sometimes a better teacher than reality because reality is filled with extraneous details and infinite unknowns. Just like how a good teacher is needed to point out the important parts of a subject, fiction can act as a diagram for the important parts of reality.
Take a textbook illustration of a cell. That is not what cells look like in real life, even under a microscope: the picture is pretty and colored and cut in half so that you can see all of its inner workings, even if that’s not what you’ll see irl.
Fictional stories, too, are capable of taking abstract ideas or complex motivations and moving them to a less crowded, more colorful environment, where the consequences of each character’s actions are more clearly seen. We see this in classical works like A Christmas Carol, which you don’t think of as fantasy until you remember the ghosts.
2. Fiction makes us question reality.
My university requires something called Global Cultures and Cultural Diversity “flags,” skills you’re required to collect as a side-bonus of certain classes before you graduate: writing and quantitative reasoning are a few other examples. But why would our school want us to understand cultures besides our own, apart from that pesky liberal agenda that keeps trying to make the world a better place? Well, there is a practical reason: you can only understand your own culture by understanding another one. The unconscious things that we do in everyday life and the assumptions we take to be fact are completely invisible until we see an alternative; our gender roles, economic ideas, holiday decorations, even our values on hard work or duty, are not universal. We only get to see what is ours by looking at what is someone else’s.
Fiction that takes place in alternative societies or worlds, likewise, show us things about our own reality that we normally take for granted. Perhaps it’s an alien planet in Star Trek where people with black/right-white/left faces are considered “genetically superior” to the people with white/right-black/left faces. Perhaps it’s a dystopian future brought about by small, slippery-slope decisions we think won’t have much impact. Or maybe it’s simply asking how a society with a stable economy could exist if things like money and resources could be conjured out of thin air (Harry Potter).
Writers are good at deciphering the motivations of characters in situations they have never experienced themselves. And even if the author gets it wrong, fictional worlds at least make you think: what would I do in that situation? Would I rebel against the government in 1984? Would I be a Slytherin or a Hufflepuff? What does that tell me about my personality, about how the nurture/experience side of my behavior might change with a different upbringing? If superpowers were real, what would become the socioeconomic dynamics of a world where a single individual could control the world’s banks or trap themselves in a time bubble (Worm by Wildbow)?
How would peoples’ thoughts and attitudes differ if their experiences and surroundings were different? How have my experiences and surroundings affected me and my neighbors?
3. Fiction exists for a reason.
Imagination exists for a reason. Call it evolutionary, allowing us to solve problems; call it emotional, keeping us from going insane or getting bored. Either way, like all art, fiction was created by humans in order to stimulate our craving for imagination.
Maybe you’re like me and draw inspiration from places as mundane as math class and art history, or maybe you need a bit of Tolkien or Martin to get your creative juices flowing. Either way, creativity spurs more creativity: consider the least realistic of fiction to be your daily dose of vitamins for the sentient part of your brain (the part capable of doing more than memorizing facts and regurgitating them like a computer).
Why care about the imagination-filled, problem-solving, self-aware side of your brain? Because of the problem-solving part. Creativity fuel has led to some of science’s greatest inventions, society’s newest social policies, and teaching’s most powerful tool. Imagination is to reality as playing games prepares an infant for the real world: sometimes it’s just enjoyable, sometimes people add in particular messages they’d like to get across, but often it’s our nature to play simply because it’s the doorway to discovery.
Most institutions you see are around for a reason. Sometimes, they exist to put money in someone’s pocket. Sometimes, they’re necessary for a functioning society. Sometimes, they’re just for fun. But often, it’s a combination of these things; only by thinking critically about what we read and why we read it can we know what we’ll get out of a particular story. 50 Shades of Grey? Pure entertainment. A Song of Ice and Fire? Lots of commentary on power in there (and don’t give me that “it’s based on history” argument because you know that there are dragons in there).
Some people like to assume that fiction as a genre only exists to entertain us, or that it’s used as a way to distract the childish while the author sneaks in a lesson or two. While both of those can be true, they aren’t the only two options. Fiction lets us explore scenarios that haven’t popped up in the real world (yet).
To the random Reddit commenter who inspired me to write this: it’s not about which is more real, it’s about which is more useful. People use the word “real” without understanding its implication that real is always better. Fiction may not be the thing for you, if the fiction you read for whatever reason doesn’t make you think about human nature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t offer the world to everyone else.
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