Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Story Power

To follow up Judy’s previous post, Fiction Matters, some experts argue that stories shape our cultural and moral conscience. In a Wall Street Journal blog, Jonathan Gottschall asserted that fiction can help ‘bring on war (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”) or rapid social change’ (“Will and Grace” and the liberalization of attitudes towards homosexuality).

Stories help the brain learn and identify emotional truths that can be elusive in our own lives. Repeated fictional images render sights and situations more familiar, less frightening, even routine. Fiction is powerful.

 Images of the Aurora shooter, mimicking the famous Batman character the Joker are disturbing. While his incomprehensible actions probably have more to do with seeking glory through publicity than fictional ‘inspiration’ (see this thought provoking segment with noted forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz) the link to a fictional story is tragically, orange-ly obvious.

As a society we are increasingly inured to violence in fiction and reality, even weary on occasion. Are writers (fiction, non-fiction, journalist, content provider, etc.) responsible in part for this societal degeneration?

Stories, even horrific stories, often NEED to be told. There is a great benefit to others who have been victimized, in cases such as bullying or abuse. Children especially can benefit from stories such as The Ugly Duckling and Go Ask Alice. But the subject, content and nuance are choices of the writer. How should a writer handle issues of extreme and inhuman behavior? How can we write interesting bad guys without glorifying them? 

Children should not become ‘weary’ of violence. It should not be routine, familiar and less frightening through fiction (of course, age appropriate still applies). The bad guy should not be the ‘coolest’ character in the story. How can we lift our writing, especially for children, so that they lift us as a society? I do not seek a return to saccharine, preachy tales that bore us even as we write. It is a challenge to keep the focus on good characters who are strong enough, complex enough, and cool enough to dominate the story.  

If fiction can shape our group consciousness, can we as fiction writers encourage its betterment? We can help people to understand themselves and their relationships more deeply. In her blog, Author Libba Bray argues for more compassion, more random acts of kindness, on a personal and a professional level. Maybe if we writers can, as Libba Bray reflects, ‘respond to the world with as much love and understanding as we can personally muster’ we can prevent one kid from being ‘inspired’ to a senseless and inhumane act.


  1. Excellent post! I hadn't looked at Libba Bray's blog in a while - I'll be going back. She's a stitch as well as thoughtful.

    Adding to the topic of the moment, Nathan Bransford has posted his thoughts on violence in YA and children's books. He asks lots of questions. Worth reading.

  2. I'll take a crack at answering your question: "Can we as fiction writers encourage its betterment?"

    I think yes. I think it is our job to allow our readers to make an emotional connection to our work by being as honest as we can be.

    Not every reader will connect with every piece of writing in the same way -- and some may not connect at all. But in the hands of a skillful writer, such as Laurie Halse Anderson or Judy Blume or Cynthia Voight, some difficult subjects become verbal life rafts for young readers.

  3. Thanks Gale. Nathan Bransford is always interesting. ANd Judy, I love your verbal life raft reference. The emotional connection can be such an important developmental point for some kids. I vote yes too- fiction can better us.