The Power of Fiction

Originally posted on my blog

In 388 B.C. Plato urged the leaders of Athens to banish all storytellers because he saw them as some of the most dangerous people. Unlike politicians and philosophers who stood before the crowds and openly espoused their ideas, storytellers worked more subtly. Under the guise of an emotional narrative, they could shape and move their audiences without their listeners even realizing it.

Plato’s judgment of storytellers as dangerous is debatable, but his conclusion that stories are powerful is true.

We have all felt the power of stories.

I can recall countless times when stories have pushed me in the right direction. When my natural inclinations push me to despair and resignation, I remember the battle of Helm’s Deep in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers and I’m inspired to hope even when circumstances are grim. When I’m tempted to become bitter and unforgiving, I remember the gracious priest in Les Miserables who gave the convict Jean Val Jean a second chance at life.

Stories have power. I would argue that they are our greatest teachers. As story guru Robert McKee writes:

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jean Anouilh, ‘Fiction gives life its form.’

Since stories shape and reflect culture, I hope you can see the responsibility that storytellers bear. Our stories need to move our world towards something better.

But how can fantasy make the world better?

It is easy to see how nonfiction and realistic fiction writers can do this since the real world is where their stories take place. But how can fantasy authors (of which I’m one) make a difference in the real world? Is our genre nothing more than mere entertainment—an escape from what is real?

I posed this question to one of today’s fantasy greats, Brandon Sanderson, and he replied back, saying, “By removing distractions and creating something fresh, we can look at problems from a new angle. Fantasy books are about the real world seen through a different lens.”

Consider this portion of “The Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll:

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!Jabberwocky.jpg
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

This is absolute nonsense. And yet it’s so true.

We have all journeyed into the dark unknown to fight the monster therein. And when we return from our journey, we realize that we are not the same people we were before. The trials made us stronger.

This is what fantasy does. It acts as a metaphor for life. It gives us language for abstract concepts that are hard for use to wrap our minds around. This is why the fantastical epics have stayed with us through the ages. They resonate at the very core of our existence.

And their message is this: we are to be the heroes of our own stories. Everyone is living a story, and it is our decision whether or not we take up the hero’s mantle.

Let me tell you a bit of my story.

Many years back, I worked as a substitute teacher in Los Angeles. Now substitute teaching is a tough gig. You enter an unfamiliar classroom with its own established system, a system that the kids know way more than you do—a weakness of yours that they can so easily exploit. And yet you’re expected to be the authority figure for the day.

This was my challenge, and so I would often mentally prepare myself as I arrived at work. One day, as drove to a new school and parked, I took some time to sit in the car to think and pray. As I was readying myself for the day, a thought came into my head: “Jason, you’re a tiger.” Regal. Fierce. A creature to be respected.

It was a nice thing to pretend before a potentially tough day. Nothing more than a crazy motivational fantasy to help me get through my job.

Or perhaps it was something more profound. Perhaps it was a call to remind me that I was something more than a substitute teacher. I needed to be reminded that my identity was much greater than that.

As I left my car and walked to the school entrance, I saw a class of preschoolers being led by their teacher through the parking lot. She was taking them on an imaginary safari.

“Look!” she said, pointing to one of the cars, “It’s an elephant.” The children gasped as they sighted the pretend pachyderm.

“That over there is a monkey,” the teacher continued. “And over there is a herd of zebra!”

As I passed the children, one little boy looked at me and pointed. “Look,” he said, “a tiger!”

This is our call.

Since I’m a fantasy author concerned with making this world a better place, let me be that kid pretending. Let me be that kid who lives in his fantasy novels and who uses his stories to call people to something greater. Let me point to you and say, “Look! A tiger!”

It’s a silly fantasy. And yet it is so true. You were meant to be the hero in your story. So be the hero, and live your story well.

6 thoughts on “The Power of Fiction

  1. Fantastic, Jason! Simply PERFECT, especially during a time when the board is slow, so there’s room to leave it all on the main page for EVERYONE to read and ponder. SO happy you shared this with us, and I agree 100% with this entire message. Let us each head into 2016, the heroes of our own stories, knowing we can do better every day!

    Happy New Year!


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