What’s the point of fiction? Why make things up?
Throughout history, some people (and Plato was certainly one of them) have distrusted fiction. Periodically, and often when in the grip of a repressive government or ideology, a whole culture seems to go through a phase of feeling that way. If it didn’t really happen, the argument goes, it’s not a fact. And if it is not a fact, it must be the opposite: a lie or an illusion, and therefore of no value and quite possibly harmful, should you start to believe in it, or use it to distract yourself from reality.
Too much pure entertainment or outright escapism may be unhealthy, but in my opinion there’s nothing essentially wrong with it , though that’s not what I want to talk about right now. More important is that I think that fiction is one of the most useful things we have, precisely because it’s fabricated. One of the many things all good stories (real-life or made-up or in between) do is prompt us to think and imagine beyond our actual experiences and the choices we have made. When I engage with other lives, situations and choices – including imaginary ones – I often find myself thinking with greater clarity and passion and excitement about my own life. I become more aware; I make comparisons and connections, stretch my sense of what is possible both out there in the wider world, and for me in particular. I may even find myself striving to make more satisfying choices, to engage more with who and what is around me, to express myself more completely, or aim higher – in short, to write a better story for myself. The desire to see some kind of satisfying shape in one’s life is a basic and powerful one.
But don’t we have enough real-life stories to satisfy us, reality being so much stranger than fiction, after all? Well yes, and no. First, it seems to me that a thoughtful, passionate engagement with life is one of those good things of which you cannot have too much. It’s not like alcohol or cheese – a better comparison would be with water, or air. Welcome it, wherever it comes from. Share. Worry when there is not enough.
The other thing to remember is that many extraordinary true life stories are never told, and others or are only half, or badly told. Not everyone is able to make a true story seem real, and to make it matter – and on the whole, it is fiction writers who do that best of all. They care about the story above all else, and their skill is to make it, whether come to life in the reader’s mind.
Perhaps the real-life story we can only partly engage with is less useful than a made up one, a fiction we can surrender to for the duration of the telling, share with others, and make part of our lives? Perhaps the distinction, in some respects, is less important than it seems.