Why fiction–at all?

This came in from Bethany two posts ago and was discussed in the comments following the last post. I’ve moved it up to meet her research deadline: I am writing my research paper on the purpose of fiction. Please tell me your opinions. What is the purpose of fiction? Is it to entertain? Is educating important? Do you think reading about fictional characters can change us and make us better people?

Here’s what followed from you:

Christie V Powell: You might consider reading “The Seven Basic Plots” by Christopher Booker, which addresses these questions. However, it’s huge. It took me weeks to read, and I rarely take more than a day to read a book.

Short answers: Yes, it entertains. Education can be important, but can’t be too blatant. Novels ask questions, especially big moral/theme questions, but leave the reader to answer them on their own. Yes, I think there are scientific studies that say that reading makes people more empathetic because it helps us see the world through someone else’s eyes.

Chicory: One purpose of fiction is to try out different lives and situations. I decided I didn’t want a horse after reading how much work it is to take care of one in the Saddle Club books. (Even though the girls in those books loved their horses.) That was a lot easier and less expensive -and better for horses everywhere- than getting one and making the discovery! (Of course, I was twelve at the time and couldn’t have afforded my own horse -or driven myself to get one- but still….)

Another purpose of fiction is to be a safe place for fears and other dark feelings. When you’re going through a really hard time, reading about someone else in trouble can make you feel less alone.

Fiction is a great way to connect to other people, too. If you know someone likes the same books as you do, talking about them can help overcome the shyness of meeting a new person.

Jenalyn Barton: I think one of the purposes of fiction is to answer questions about life. I think it also teaches us about human nature in ways that the social sciences never could. In fact, in a way, science and non-fiction and statistics are telling, while fiction is showing. That’s because fiction helps you step into the shoes of another person and experience life through their eyes and mind. Fiction has a reputation for changing worldviews, for raising awareness, and for influencing political movements in ways that no study or speech ever could.

Emma G. C.: What a coincidence! I just wrote a 5 paragraph persuasive essay on the purpose of fantasy and how it can be more important than acquired knowledge. I’ll give you some tips I learned from writing it. First, I used this quote by Albert Einstein to support my beliefs about fantasy (I argued in the favor of the importance of fantasy, by the way):

“When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come close to the conclusions that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” -Albert Einstein

Now, since you’re writing about fiction and not fantasy, and since you’re not arguing the value of fantasy as opposed to acquired knowledge, it may not be necessary to use a quote to back up your beliefs. If you are writing a persuasive essay, however, then using a quote to back up the importance of fiction is a great idea! Moving along, I brainstormed and came up with 3 topics/places in society where fantasy has shown its importance. While brainstorming, I asked myself “how can I show my readers the value of fantasy?”. Try asking yourself the same question about fiction. How can you show your readers the value and purpose of fiction? After asking myself that question, I decided that the best way to prove the value of fantasy was to pick 3 topics/places in society that are very different and diverse, so my readers could see that fantasy isn’t just important in one area. It’s important in all areas. So I decided to argue for fantasy in the areas of literature and the arts, inventions, and business. Three very different categories that, in my opinion, require some degree of fantasy and imagination. So after you ask yourself “how,” maybe ask yourself “where.” Where is fiction important? Where does it help? Where does it stand out? In my paragraph about literature and the arts, I wrote that literary fantasy inspires people to use their imaginations, and makes reading and learning fun. I wrote that fictional stories have been proven to inspire people, either in a positive or negative light. I also included that without literary fantasy, the movie industry, song writers and composers, and other writers, whether fiction writers or not, would all lose quite a bit of creativity and imagination. This applies to fiction as well. Fantasy is a form of fiction, after all. So where does fiction show its purpose to you? Give real life examples. Give quotes to support your reasons. Ask yourself the questions “how” and “where.” While researching, ask your friends, siblings, parents, and grandparents what fiction means to them. Don’t forget to record their answers. Have fun, and I hope it turns out well!

I agree with everything!

Along the lines of Emma G. C.’s comment, I recently heard a pundit on the radio, decrying the homogeneity of the justices on the Supreme Court, not in terms of race or gender but life experience–all attorneys, all similar in education and career. He said that he would welcome a novelist on the court. Yes! We can see around corners, turn problems inside out and upside down. We look for unforeseen consequences that will throw monkey-wrenches into our plots. A nation couldn’t do better than one of us. I volunteer!

Let’s examine Bethany’s question. Whose purpose? The writer’s? The reader’s? The educator’s? The librarian’s? The bookseller’s? The editor’s? The publisher’s? The nation’s (which Emma G. C. touches on in terms of the industries supported by fantasy)? Christie V Powell touched on broad societal concerns. Others responded as readers.

And I love Chicory’s mention of novels and friendship. I have bonded with people over books, for sure.

As for educational and societal purposes, books have brought about change. I’m thinking of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which led to reforms in the meat packing industry, and of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which resulted in the banning in England of the bearing rein for horses.

Years ago, I attended a panel on publishing trends in children’s books. The panelists mostly reported on what categories of books–like fantasy, historical fiction, picture books, YA–were selling or not selling. But I raised my hand and asked an executive of a major house how she saw the publisher’s role in setting trends. After all, I thought, they don’t publish every manuscript that comes in. Do they ever think about the directions they’d like to see children’s literature move in? She didn’t have an answer. In her case, the publisher was a trend follower. I wish I’d gotten a more interesting answer, but I don’t want to condemn publishers, who foster reading and do whatever they can to get books into the hands of readers (and make money in the process, which I think they’re entitled to).

Librarians and individual, real-life booksellers are often passionate about books and want to connect the right reader with the perfect book for her needs. For them, I’d guess the purpose of fiction is to meet a reader where she lives and sometimes to widen the boundaries of that territory. Some bookstore owners and librarians will carry books that may not sell well because they love them. They’re the trend setters. They want fiction to entertain but also–sometimes–to elevate, to expand the conversation, and, I hope, to showcase great writing.

Readers are also trend setters, by virtue of their choices.

Sadly, I’ve become less of a reader lately, and a lot of what I do read is poetry. When I turn to fiction, it’s mostly to be entertained, but if I learn something along the way, I’m delighted. Recently I read a forthcoming (March, 2017) early YA novel, Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee, which weaves Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare in general into the plot both skillfully and cleverly. I know the broad outlines of the story, but I don’t know the play very well. I loved being introduced to it in this charming way.

From my writer’s perspective, my purpose, chiefly, is to get from page 1 to The End with a story that holds together in between.

Of course, there’s more than that. I always want to entertain. Storytelling may have been the first entertainment medium. Books aren’t medicine. My purpose is to provide enjoyment.

I like to find the right word for a story moment and, sometimes, to make up the right word. So sometimes my purpose is to roll around in language. Poetry probably uses language the most wildly, metaphorically, and expansively, but I’d guess fiction is next. Is one of fiction’s purposes to be inventive with language? Maybe, and I hope readers will fall in love with English, as I have. It isn’t my purpose to expand my readers’ vocabularies, but mine certainly grew through the fiction I read.

Then there are my books with particular purposes. When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, I wanted to explore my father’s childhood through guesswork and imagination. He’d died a few years earlier, and I missed him, and he said little about his sad growing up in an orphanage. So, that’s a personal purpose. More generally, I wanted to get the history and the period right.

In the forthcoming The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, my prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my purpose was to explore prejudice and oppression, although, as Christie V Powell says, readers may come away with something else entirely. Naturally, I think oppression and prejudice are negatives, so there’s hardly a message in that, since it’s a generally shared belief. I just wanted to shake the concepts out and try them in different situations and in a fantasy context, where we might see their effects fresh. (Which is why I’d be such a good Supreme Court justice–just saying.)

In Ogre Enchanted, which I’m working on now, I’d like to return to the lightness of Ella Enchanted, since it’s in Ella’s world, and I’m trying something new with romance, which is tricky and fun. Is the purpose of fiction to provide those who create it with puzzles and pleasure and frustration and exhaustion? Maybe. Sometimes I think that’s its only purpose!

My overriding purpose in all my books is to tell a good story. I’d have to vote for offering a good story as the primary purpose of fiction for readers, too. Nothing else can be achieved by fiction that’s unreadable.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Jokes are little stories. This one comes from The Joys of Yiddish, a book that is full of jokes and definitions of Yiddish words and phrases. I don’t speak Yiddish, and no one can learn the entire language from this book, but it’s lots of fun. Here’s the joke: The people of the village of Chelm (where fools live) are asked which is more important, the sun or the moon. To a person, they say the moon–because the sun shines in the day when they don’t need it. Write a scene in the village of Chelm. You can use this joke or not. Your purpose is to entertain.

∙ Think of something you know more about than most. Could be anything: your younger brother, your dog’s favorite toy, or string theory. Write a story that works as a story but that also educates the reader about that thing.

∙ Write a tendentious (if you don’t know, look it up–it’s a great word!) story. Some writers have been able to write such novels. Ayn Rand, for example, had me going while I was under her spell, and I kept reading despite the windiness of her dialogue. Pick something you believe in deeply and bring in your message, loud and clear. Is this something that you’re good at, or does the message force you away from complexity and an interesting story?

∙ Think of a debate question, like, Should schools permit free speech in the school newspaper? Write a story that explores both positions. You can come down on one side or the other or leave the resolution open-ended.

Bethany, since a bunch of us weighed in, please let us know how your research paper went.d

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Bethany, the one book you absolutely can’t do without for this research is Brian Boyd’s THE ORIGIN OF STORIES. It answers your very question: What is the purpose of fiction? Answer: survival.
    Another book that delves further into this (couched in good advice for authors) is Lisa Cron, WIRED FOR STORY.
    Both books explain that humans are wired for wanting stories, wanting to hear stories, getting such pleasure out of “consuming” stories, because they teach us crucial survival skills. In caveman days, it might have been a story about how Cronk heard a rustling in the bushes, and bam! a sabre-tooth tiger jumped out and ate him – which teaches the listener that when you hear a rustling in the bushes, run! Today, it’s all those other things that have been mentioned already – “No, I don’t want a horse, they’re too much work,” or learning about what it feels like to be in the shoes of a poor person, or one in another country, or…
    Fiction is, quite simply, one of the most basic human needs. At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! 🙂

  2. I think “survival” describes my purpose for writing fiction these days! I’m five weeks into my first year as a “main” teacher (as opposed to assistant), and I’m finding that the craving to write is stronger than it’s been since high school. Between my job and my family, I don’t have a lot of “free” and “alone” time. And now I find that writing fiction is about as good use of that small amount of time as I can get. It is one of the things that refreshes me the most. I think it’s because it’s so totally different than what I do all day. Whether the day was good or discouraging, I still need to set my mind running in a different direction, just simply to give it a break.

    Otherwise, when I have more time and try to write or rewrite things for other people to read, I write with other purposes: to entertain, to inspire, to make people think.

  3. Hello! I have a question:
    My latest WIP features three fairies; Arellie, Roanna, and Lio. My MC Arellie is in love with Lio, but he’s chasing her best friend, Roanna…only Roanna’s sees their relationship a lot more casually than he does.
    Does this sound like a cliche love triangle? If so, how do I make it not-cliche?
    Thanks for any advice! : )

    • To me, a cliche love triangle is one where the MC must choose between two people. Unrequited love like this seems different (reminds me of Wicked if you’ve seen it). Personally I find the main problems with love triangles are that they focus on drama and angst even with more pressing plot points going on, and they often substitute physical attraction and desire for healthy growing relationships.

    • Poppie- I think it sounds like a great love triangle. They get a lot of flack, but I like love triangles. Romance is very predictable, this allows for suspense.
      While we’re on the subject, I’m rewriting a book I finished a few years ago. In the original version, the main character did not have a love interest, and characters Soren and Charlette had a relationship subplot. As I’m rewriting, I’ve made some changes to Soren’s role, and I think it would make a lot of sense if he became the main character’s love interest. I’m not so sure I want them to end up together. Gail and Gail-minions, how do you feel about love triangles where the MC doesn’t win in the end?

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        Minions! Hah!

        Oddly enough, I’ve got a love triangle going, too, in OGRE ENCHANTED. Of course, I can’t tell for sure, but if your MC isn’t devastated forever, if she has other compensations and hope for achieving her goals in love or in other arenas, then it seems fine to me. And if you’re writing a tragedy, she can be devastated and stay that way.

      • Age also makes a difference. If you’ve got a 20+ MC, you’re going to have more audience rooting that she settles down at the end. If she’s in her teens or younger, it’s especially acceptable, even preferable, if she doesn’t end up in a relationship at the end. Of course, I’m kind of old-fashioned that way.

      • I don’t mind at all if the MC doesn’t “win,” if it’s done right. I think of two examples: One, The Paper Bag Princess – which is a hilarious picture book that stands the stereotypical fairy tale on its head, and ends with “And they didn’t get married after-all.” Two, When a Man’s a Man by Harold Bell Wright. In When a Man’s a Man, the MC was a very good character, but so was the other man, and it was the second one who was really right for the girl. And the girl’s main reasons for liking the MC were rather shallow, whereas her connections with the other one really went much deeper. It wouldn’t have felt right any other way. And I think it would have undermined the theme of the book anyway, if the MC had nicely found his match. One of our friends didn’t like it that the MC didn’t get engaged. I liked it. My sister liked it.

        Quite frankly, I like the honesty of young adult and older books that have the courage to let the MC be romance-free by the end of the book. It is quite possible in real life to have adventures and not find that a complimentary romance is included in the bargain. Not that I dislike all romance. I do like it, and it can be beautiful, or humorous, or any other good thing. But it’s nice sometimes when books remember that sometimes things turn out differently. And that can be beautiful too.

  4. I’ve been kind of absent on this blog recently, but I’ve been reading all of Gail’s posts and they are super helpful as always! My current WiP is supposed to be a novella, but I find the plot hurrying on too quickly. Any ideas on how to make the story progress more slowly? Thanks 🙂
    Also, what do you think a stereotypical “author” looks like? I’d like to dress up as one for my high school’s Halloween party, but I don’t think many people would recognize what I was in costume as (or not in costume…I don’t know). Any and all ideas are welcome!

    • I think pacing is very individualized, and something you have to develop a sense of.
      Personally I use chapters to control my pacing. I read somewhere that a chapter is like a miniature story, with a build up to a climax, while ending on some kind of hook. I try to vary the climaxes so that some of them are plot based (Keita and her friends escaped the noblewoman’s house) and some are character based (Carli decided to help the abandoned kids). The best ones are both (Keita defeated the feral dog and then realized she’d been wrong to be angry at her friends). I also try to mix up whether they are cliffhangers (the boulder slammed shut over the tunnel, locking Keita’s friends inside), or ending on a poignant image (the lizard that had been petrified because the enemy thought it might be the main character sank into the sand). The rest of the chapter leads up to the climax in some way or another.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve added the question about pacing to my list, not the one about an author disguise, which I think Melissa Mead nailed. But I’ll just add two ideas: You might wear pajamas, because many authors rarely put on anything else, and–I don’t know how you can work this in–but you might go by three names, as so many of us do (like me).

  5. Oo, fun! Stereotypical? Specifically a Fantasy/SF author? Hm…
    Wear a “nerdy” T-shirt (Ex, my sisters gave me one that says “Be careful or I’ll put you in my novel,”), and a pair of raggy pants with the pockets turned out.* On the back, pin a bunch of “rejection slips.” On the front, pin things like a picture of your cover art and a Hugo or Nebula award, or a Newberry medal. (Because you always want to put your rejections behind you and look forward to your triumphs.)
    Wear oversized glasses and a hat with something like a rocket, unicorn, or open book on top.
    Or a giant lightbulb!
    On a necklace or belt, hang tools like pens and pencils (not too sharp), a flash drive…

    Oh, this is cool. I’ll keep thinking.

    *My best friend, the late writer Jennifer Schwabach, once told me that her “writer costume” at conventions was to approach people, pen in hand, and ask “Excuse me, where’s the free food?” 😉

  6. I need some help. I’m writing a poem, and I really want to include some variant of the quote “Mirrors give plenty, but they take lots.” from Terry Pratchett’s book WITCHES ABROAD. How much do I have to change/modify that quote for it to be considered my own work and not plagiarism? (And if any of you have suggestions for how to go about doing that, that would be much appreciated.) Or can I not do it at all, even if I change it up? I really like the essence of the quote, how mirrors “give plenty” in the form of insubstantial illusions of whatever you want to see, but also “take lots” because you lose a bit of yourself. It really fits the themes of my poem, which is about social media, but I’m not sure how it reword it in my own words, or even if I’m allowed to. Any suggestions?

      • Thanks! An epigraph is a great idea, but I’ve heard that kind of quoting falls under the fair use grey area though, and since it’s for a contest with a prize of publication if chosen, I’m afraid to risk it. Thanks for the suggestion, though!

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I beg to disagree. In an epigraph, the poet names the source of the quotation, so there’s no copying.

          Having said that, I know of one publication that doesn’t take poems with epigraphs.

          Epigraphs aside, I’m pretty sure you can paraphrase Pratchett without fear. You’re interested, I think, in using his idea rather than his expression of it.

  7. Hi everyone! Thanks for answering my question earlier.
    Now I have another one: I have a “midstory crisis!”
    In my Jack and Elsa sequel, they have to find a fairy palace. But I have no idea how!
    Also, I’m concerned about having too much action. I don’t want them to “just find” the palace, but there has to be room for the emotional stuff. How do I pull this off?
    Thanks in advance! : )

    • I’d suggest brainstorming a way to do both. How can finding the palace be an emotional/character developing experience? Adding conflict is a good way: perhaps they can argue about the best way to look for it, or one cares more than the other. They will each have different preconceived notions about what the palace might be like.

  8. Thank you so much for writing this blog! I really enjoy it. Just wanted to let you know that I rated you one of the “Best Blogs by Authors.” You don’t have to do anything, just wanted to let you know!

  9. Hello,
    I’m actually representing a group of people- the Short Story Club at Horner Junior High. We were really inspired by your book “Writing Magic” and decided to create a short story collection together. We were planning on getting it published on Kindle, but we’re a bit confused about the legal processes. Could you help us?
    Horner SSC

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Hi! I’m delighted you found WRITING MAGIC helpful!

      But, alas, I don’t know how to help. This is outside my expertise. I’m pretty sure an adult has to be involved, though. For example, when people buy your book, they’ll (obviously) be paying for it. I don’t know who would receive the payment. But good luck with the project, and I hope you do publish it.

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