Salutations, fellow citizens of earth! (If you don’t live on earth, salutations anyway!) I am excited that you are here, and I hope you are ready to be bombarded with words by an overly zealous sponge.
Today we are going to talk about my favourite thing: STORIES
(I mean, that’s practically all we talk about, but hey, this is my blog so I can do what I want.)
I think most of us can agree that stories are an important piece in human existence. Our history is made up of countless stories that shaped the way the world is now. We live stories, and we create imaginary ones as well, because clearly we don’t ever have enough of them.
Fiction and nonfiction are both vital. Nonfiction tells us where we have been, and fiction tells us what might be. Fiction allows us to explore worlds and concepts that no one has experienced.
This post is mostly going to be about how fiction connects us to reality, which brings us to my first question:
What makes a (fictional) story relatable?
As far as I know, no one has ever created a magical Ring that has the power to destroy the world. There has never been an alien invasion on our planet (unless you count me walking into the mathematics building on campus), and no one has invented square candies that look round (alas).
So how do we get so emotionally invested in these stories? If it’s nothing we or any of our ancestors have experienced, why do we care?
The key to masterful fantasy is its ability to meld with reality.
That sounds really impressive, doesn’t it? That’s why I put it in bold. Or maybe it sounds impressive because I put it in bold…
Most of the stories that we resonate with, no matter how many unicorns or invisible space ships they contain, make use of some everyday ho-hum elements that we can all relate to: love, pain, fear, longing– It’s these elements that ultimately hold theses stories together.
These words mean slightly different things to different people, but the concept is the same. When some of us hear love, we think of our parents or siblings, some of us think of a romantic partner, and some of us think of our dogs. When we hear pain, some of us think of the death of a friend, and some of us think of the dentist (if your friend who died was a dentist then you think of both). When we hear fear, some of us think of biological warfare and some of us think of running out of ketchup. When we hear longing, some of us think of ending world hunger and some of us think of the Fantastic Beasts sequel.
Our definitions of these words are partially shaped by individual experience. Essentially though, we all know what love, pain, fear, and longing feel like.
That’s why we can relate to Sydney Carton when he was willing to sacrifice everything for the people he loves. That’s why we can relate to Jonas’ horror when he sees what his community is capable of. The human emotions rooted in these stories are very real.
There are others too, of course. Guilt. Despair. Hope. Disappointment. We all know what these things feel like. It doesn’t matter if the characters are part fish or have superpowers or are two inches tall, if they have the core of a human, we can resonate with them.
Despereaux Tilling is a mouse, and yet one of the most deeply human characters I have ever met. And have you seen WALL-E, because that little robot MELTS MY HEART. He’s a piece of hardware, but on the inside he’s bursting with humanity.
On the other hand, if characters don’t feel human (even the totally human shaped ones) it’s really hard to care about them at all.
Why is it that some things just fall completely flat? Like perfect characters, for instance. Or perfect worlds.
Why are perfect things so BORING?
In real life, we would all love to eradicate worldwide suffering and live in peace and harmony forever. But that’s easier said than done. You would think that perfect worlds would appeal to us in books and movies, because hey, at least we could escape the woes of life through fiction, right?
I don’t like reading books where nothing bad happens. I hate characters that don’t do anything wrong. Judging by the popularity of things like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, (not to mention Game of Thrones) I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that I’m not alone in this.
We like stories with violence and pain and characters who blunder about, hurting themselves and their loved ones left and right. Bring on the suffering!
As Count Rugen would say, “I’m sure you’ve discovered my deep and abiding interest in pain.” (The Princess Bride)
So does that make us all psychopaths?
But there is more to it than that. There is, in fact, an alternate explanation.
The reason we don’t like perfect worlds and characters is because we can’t relate to them. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. And the world we live in is most decidedly not perfect. There’s a disconnect when we try to read about everything being fine and dandy, because it’s not.
But isn’t that what we want though? I’ve never had a self-replenishing box of doughnuts, but I still want one. I would totally read a book about a self-replenishing box of doughnuts.
So why don’t I care about perfect worlds?
Here’s a further explanation: the reason perfect worlds and humans fall so flat is that we don’t even have the capabilities to imagine them properly. Because, really, the whole idea of “perfect” means there’s nothing wrong with it, and being boring is definitely something wrong.
I think that if a world was truly perfect, we would want to read about it. It would fascinate us. It would awaken our longing for a better world. It would probably blow our minds.
But that’s why we can’t imagine it. It’s so beyond what we know. We can bring ourselves to believe in all sorts of outlandish things, like star ships with the ability to blow up planets, and time travel, and people transforming into dragons, but we can’t imagine love without pain, or victory without sacrifice, or light without shadows. Somehow it’s incomprehensible to us.
Pain is much too real to ignore.
Which brings us to my last point:
What do we do with the darkness?
Because of our inability to convincingly conjure up perfect worlds, we saturate our stories in darkness to match the world that we see around us. We know that if we make our stories dark, people will resonate with them. Everybody has darkness inside of them.
Sometimes we go a little overboard with this.
Sometimes the pain and suffering around us seems to block out everything else. Perfection is a fantasy, so the darkness is the only thing that matters. The darkness is stronger than everything, and we write about darkness for darkness’ sake.
Recently I read a blog post by the brilliant FC. Tait @ Of Enchantments and Escape that discussed the use of darkness in fiction, and it reminded me how passionately I feel about this subject. The post is actually a review of Six of Crows (which I haven’t actually read) but I still found it to be a very insightful post, and it’s partially thanks to that inspiration that I am writing this post. So thank you, FC. Tait!
When we write darkness for darkness’ sake, we are missing the point. Tait discussed this in her post. Because of how closely linked we are to darkness, we sometimes fall into the trap of glorifying it.
But we have to remember why the darkness exists. What makes darkness dark? Why are certain things abhorrent to us?
If everything was dark, we would have nothing to compare it to. Darkness would be all we knew, and so we wouldn’t even notice it.
But that’s not the case.
All the shadows are doing is proving to us the presence of the light.
(Listen to this lovely Switchfoot song. It was also an inspiration point for this post. You’re welcome.)
This is the way real life works. Pain exists because love exists. Not the other way around. It is the goodness of this world that creates such a sharp contrast with the evil. No matter how appalling the evil gets, it’s still proving how pure the goodness is. And that makes the goodness all the more worth fighting for.
That’s what our stories should be showing. We use darkness to accentuate the light. We use despair to illustrate the strength of hope. We go down to the blackest, most decrepit places in our souls to prove that we can get back out again. Stories can transcend the darkness that wants to suffocate us.
We write about darkness not because it’s the goal. Not because goodness is boring. We write about darkness because we all yearn for a way to disentangle ourselves from the darkness in our own lives, and stories give us a way to do that.
I want to write stories that go to dark, disturbing places, but not make them look cool. I want to bring hope to places that don’t know what hope is. (Yes, that’s a tad dramatic, but I can dream, can’t I?)
So don’t be afraid of the darkness. Face it head on. Plunge into the most broken, pain ridden places in the world, but don’t stay there. Don’t pretend it’s okay. Bring the light with you.
Sponge got very philosophical today. This often happens. It’s a bit like getting a cold. Maybe it’s also contagious like a cold. Who knows?
What do you think makes a story relatable? Why is fiction important? What do you think about perfect worlds and characters? How do you think we should use darkness in stories? Do you agree that the “shadow proves the sunshine” or do you have another theory? Please share with me any thoughts you have about what makes a good story!