I’m pretty straight forward about being completely obsessed with stories. All my life I’ve been a reader and a viewer of stories. As a kid I read obsessively (thanks to all the friends who have saved me from walking into traffic while reading) and I loved going to the movies and playing computer games. Sometime in my early twenties (pretty much when internet access started getting much better than dial-up) a new outlet for that obsession was found in anime.
But this post isn’t actually about me. It’s about the nature of fiction and why experiencing narratives is so fundamentally important.
Narratives for Entertainment
Obviously reading and watching for pleasure involves entertainment and that is probably one of the main reasons people engage with stories. Right back to the days of people gathering around the fire to hear about how the earth was made or how man discovered fire. It gives you a break from the real and takes you somewhere else for a little while and can amuse you and invoke a whole range of emotions. However, this is just one facet of the experience.
Narratives as Educators
This should also be straight forward. Back to the gathering around the fire, people passed on their knowledge, their religion, their ideas through the stories they told. They also shared their values and ideologies through the characters who were made heroic and those that were made into villains. You could learn about what was dangerous, what was acceptable, what was known about something through a story.
You also gain a rich knowledge in general through reading stories. Random facts stick with you well after you finish the story. Stories set in real locations or dealing with real issues usually weave facts into the story to make it more believable. While you can’t take everything in a fiction story at face value (how much research was done and how much was made up is questionable), you do gain a fairly diverse range of knowledge about places, settings, and things.
Narratives as Community Builders
In addition to educating, narratives allow communities to form and to mesh. By having a shared story or understanding, people are able to understand one another better. It’s interesting as we see our world becoming increasingly small that we realise that a lot of the fundamental stories around the globe are very similar in nature and yet those small differences can become critical to understanding one another.
Narratives to Develop Empathy
This is absolutely crucial. Over and over we hear that the current generation (whether it was X, Y, millenials) have no empathy and are self-absorbed. By experiencing things outside of their own life and connecting with characters, people can actually learn to empathise in a way that they might not just by interacting with people in the real world. A common trait of someone who does not have very much empathy is very little imagination. It actually takes imagination to consider how someone else might be feeling and imagination can be fuelled by exposure to narratives (not the only way to build imagination).
Narratives to Break Barriers
Following on from the ability to develop empathy and imagination, narratives allow people to see beyond the concrete reality and think in ways that might allow new solutions or new possibilities to be formed. At the very least, when confronted with a problem, someone with a rich exposure to stories (or to real life experiences) will have a wealth of options whereas someone without that exposure will struggle to think of a way around the issue. So without experiencing everything yourself, experiencing stories is a good way to build up your repertoire of problem solving skills.
As we increasingly see reality TV shows and talk shows dominating, I think it is important that the importance of narratives and the role they serve is remembered.
What are your thoughts about stories and the role they play? Or, what’s your favourite medium for stories?