Being a Better Writer: The Value of Fiction

First of all, I apologize for the lateness of this post. I had a shift at work Monday(I’m still playing catch-up on a small pile of debt incurred during my knee injury and trying to be able to make rent this month, so I’m working more shifts than normal) which, as expected, put this post behind the clock. Thankfully, looking at my daily views, it seems that many of you don’t mind—a large number of you have just been checking on Tuesday rather than on Monday, which is sad as far as my ability to get these posts up on Monday is concerned, but otherwise isn’t a bother.

So … today’s topic … This is one that I’ve wanted to do for quite a while. Years, actually. But I wasn’t positive if I wanted it to be a Being a Better Writer post or just a random post until recently. I can’t recall quite what the context of it was, but there was a forum post on a site I was browsing that made me immediately turn to my topic list and write down “Learning by Example – Value of Fiction.”

Now, for some, this post is going to seem somewhat … Well, perhaps obvious is the best way to put it. But the odd thing is, for some it won’t.

See, I once had a fellow student in one of my creative writing classes who could not understand why we were bothering to read stories that ‘hadn’t happened.’ They were incredibly incensed by it (for the record, none of us, including the professor, could determine what they had expected otherwise from a course in creative writing), constantly complained about the books we read, and even, if memory serves, flat-out refused to do the writing assignments because ‘it wasn’t real, therefore it was of no worth.’

The thing is, as I’ve gotten older, wiser, and seen more of the world, I’ve come to find that this student was not alone in sharing this opinion. There are a lot of people out there that do not see the value of reading anything that is a work of fiction and hold it to be of no merit. Why? The answer is, when boiled and distilled down, because a work of fiction isn’t something “real.” Therefore, not being “real,” it has no place in the real world.

Now, obviously I disagree. But, naturally, this disagreement doesn’t start or end with “Well, you’re wrong.” Crud, there’s a reason I put “real” in the last paragraph in quotes. Because fiction isn’t simply something that’s “not real.” In fact, simply thinking of it as such shows a lack of understanding of what fiction is.

Let me back up. If your first visit to a library was anything like mine, I’d imagine that when the librarians (or maybe your teacher) explained how a library was organized they introduced the concept of fiction and non-fiction. Fiction, they likely told you, was made up of stuff that wasn’t real while non-fiction was real information, for textbooks and learning. And to be fair, this isn’t entirely inaccurate. It’s just … not full accurate, either.

See, as explained with that reasoning, fiction isn’t real. And in fact, that is one of fiction’s definitions: An invention or fabrication opposed to fact. But this definition is usually reserved for spoken word, like a statement that is untrue, rather than written fiction. Written fiction aligns more closely with another definition: imaginary events, places, and people.

These two definitions are not the same. And that’s where people who turn away from fiction are doing themselves a disservice. Because no good work of fiction will be 100% fabrication. And that’s where people who speak and stand against fiction miss the boat.

Say, for example, we have a Science-Fiction story like The Martian (this is actually a pretty good example). Right off of the bat, the “fiction” tag is right there in the genre, which means that nothing about it can be true, right?

Well, no. If you think that (as my grandparents do), then you’re missing the point. Because good fiction cannot be 100% unreal … or no one would be able to relate to it.

And that’s where those who speak ill of fiction miss the entire point. Sure, a work of fiction may contain elements that aren’t real (and in some cases, aren’t real yet, such as The Martian‘s Mars expedition), and there may not be a real Mark Watney, nor are any of the other team members or individuals in the book real … but there are people just like him. The characters that filled jobs at Nasa, carefully monitoring Watney’s condition and working out how to get him back? Those are real positions. Those are real jobs. If someone was stranded on Mars, there are people in those exact positions who would be doing what the characters in the book did to try and save their wayward astronaut.

Sure, the specific character making a choice may not be real. But someone else, in the real world, in their shoes or similar, would need to make the same choice.

And that’s where fiction can become real: The people and situations might not have happened, and may never happen, depending on what you’re reading. But the choices and decisions they make can still be real decisions, real thoughts of weight and value. The tools those characters use can be real as well. Or the places those characters go. And all of those are things that we as readers can take away from.

For example, to jump mediums a bit, consider the games Assassin’s Creed and Fallout for a moment. Now, both are works of fiction, the former following a league of assassins through the ages, the other survival in a fairly soft Sci-Fi post-nuclear-apocalypse America. But in each case, there are pretty solid takeaways in each—unexpected ones, for those who merely write each off as “fiction.”

Take the Assassin’s Creed titles, while following a fictional protagonist, always pride themselves on recreating as accurate a replica as possible of the historical locations depicted in each game. So accurate, in fact, that those who have then traveled to the locations depicted in the games, such as Rome, have found that they’re able to accurately navigate the cities through streets and alleys based on their experience with the game. Likewise with Fallout: I myself played through Fallout 3 (set in the ruins of Washington DC) having a good time, only to find to my surprise and amusement when I actually visited DC that I had a pretty good grasp of where all the major landmarks and attractions were.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Though each of those games with their associated stories are certainly fiction, at the same time they’re based upon and still grounded in some very real elements. We could got further as well, and dig into some of each series characters, looking at how they act and interact. While the post-apocalyptic ruin that is DC in Fallout 3 certainly isn’t real (and hopefully isn’t slated for a test anytime soon), the bits of the story revolving around a groups quest to build a water purifier and acquire clean water can certainly contain solid bits of truth. After all, in a situation where clean water is scarce, control of a purifier would likely turn into a power struggle. Does that make the plot and all that carries on with it a cautionary tale, then? Or a primer for thought such as “Wow, I hadn’t realized how much I take water for granted?”

This is the value of fiction. We may read a fiction book where a character faces the harrowing experience of surviving an earthquake … but does the fact that the tale has not happened mean that there is nothing of value inside said book? Of course not. A well-written book would accurately explore the terror of the earth rolling around beneath the protagonist(s), detail their survival, the stresses and horrors that follow in the wake of such an event, and how the characters deal with them. And those experiences, again if well-written, would likely be found to be very close to real accounts, in turn allowing the reader to, for a small moment, experience for themselves that same horror, fear, and stress.

And is that knowledge useless? I would argue that it isn’t. Even if the reader of such an account never ends up caught in an earthquake, there are many other situations they could find themselves in where ideas and thoughts gleaned from such a story could help put things in perspective … or even help someone work through something that would otherwise be highly difficult.

“Right,” some of you may be saying. “But that’s just fiction. Fantasy is even less real and relatable!”

Or is it? Let me toss something at you. Take a story about a tribe of lizardmen armed with spears and shields coming into conflict with a tribe of centaurs, conflict that boils over into war. Completely unreal, some might say? Especially as it’s very generic fantasy?

Well, hang on one moment. Haven’t there been times in our own history when tribes armed with spears and shields have fought against warriors on horseback? And wouldn’t this same battles and wars end up being strikingly similar to what would occur in the book? As well as whatever it was that set the two groups against one another?

Crud, one could easily take such a concept and paste it over dozens of real historical events from all across the globe involving horseback warriors coming into conflict with locals, simply rewriting a bit of the flavor, but keeping the actual history, tactics, and even recorded dialogue intact.

Doesn’t seem quite so unreal now, does it? Suddenly this story of lizardmen and centaurs (which, by the way, were based on horseback-riding warriors) isn’t quite so out of touch. It’s simply wrapped in a new skin that lets the tale be told in a new way. And those that read it, once past the wrapper, will find something that they can dig into, whether that’s the accurate description of the combat of the era, or a new interest in searching down non-fiction accounts of similar battles to fuel a new fascination.

And Sci-Fi? One way or another, from Star Trek to The Icarus Hunt, it’s a extrapolation of a type of possible future (however slim) and how people may live, act, and get along under such circumstances. For example, take Colony. While there may not be a water-shrouded world named Pisces in humanity’s future that chaffs under a military dictatorship … What sort of odds would you take that future will not find themselves in similar situations? After all, one of the antagonists of Colony did model a part of his plan off of the determination and efforts of the American Revolution, which was several hundred years ago.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at here is that fiction, while revolving around people and places that may be completely imaginary, is built out of grains of truth. Much like a committed architect could model a building after famous structures that have existed elsewhere, a work of fiction still models itself after the real world. And you can take those grains of truth and learn from them, or walk away with new ideas, thoughts, and concepts.

There’s one more thing I want to say, however, and then I’m going to call this one good: We also shouldn’t discredit the elements of fiction that aren’t real. Because while they may not be fiction now … there’s a chance that they may not be in the future.

For example, take Star Trek. Once ridiculed by many, a good chunk of the technology that was showcased in the show (as well as its successive follow-ups) has now become commonplace: Hand-held communication devices that can translate in real-time and look up information, tablet computers, digital music systems, global computer networks … any of this sound familiar?

Or crud, let’s go back even further, with Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Sure, it got some facts wrong because the science at the time wasn’t developed enough … but it also got many right, and nearly 100 years later, mankind did indeed carry out a trip to the moon. Or we could look at another work of Verne’s, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and examine how much it predicted about modern submarines.

What I’m getting at is while some look at the fantastical or out-there elements of Science-Fiction and Fantasy and scoff … others look to them to urge their mind to blossom in new directions. Many saw an episode of Star Trek growing up and wanted one of those hand-held communicators badly. Badly enough that they went out and started learning how something like that could come to pass. Today, we live in the age of the mobile phone, and something that was held by many as ‘a flight of fancy’ is commonplace.

The same is true of today’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Those fantastic, unreal elements? They may just inspire people to make them real. Or at least, create something new and clever based on a clever thing from a book they read.

Still don’t believe me? The bionic lens, currently in human testing and a death knell for the eyeglass market, is the product of almost thirty years of work by its creator. His drive? When he was a kid he loved Westerns, but noted that no one in a western (at least, not notable as a protagonist) ever wore glasses. Determined to get rid of his own, he decided to create an alternative. Thirty years later, he’s about to make eyeglasses extinct.

And that was brought about by a Western. A genre which really never existed in any real form, the stereotypical stories behind it being far, far removed from any reality. And yet … it’s about to change the world.

Fiction inspires. It invites its readers to broaden their understanding, to look at new viewpoints and reconsider what can and can’t be done. All without needing to voice it; we’re not talking message fiction here. Just  … stories. Stories with grains of truth in them, stories that can cause a reader to ask themselves “What would I do?” or perhaps “What could I do?”

Fiction does what non-fiction often cannot. It takes the hard, the tough, the dull … and makes it come alive, pulling in readers of all ages. It mixes truth with elements of the fantastic … and in turn makes the fantastic as approachable as the truth … Which in turn can lead to the fantastic becoming the truth. If non-fiction is looking at the world as it is, fiction is looking at the world as it could be, and may be. It can be cautionary, inspiring, hopeful …

But it should always be there.


Good luck. Now get reading.


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