In the midst of writing, have you ever been seized with the fear that it’s all a pointless accumulation of falsehoods? That the heart you’ve poured into your stories can be stoppered up with the phrase “it’s not real”?
The task of fiction writing is complicated. We make up people, places, and situations that are supposed to inspire readers to care and relate. We’re not trying to enchant anyone to the extent that they lose sight of the line between fiction and reality, but we are hoping to lift the veil of disbelief so that their imagination can run through the lush grass or the chipped pavement of worlds that don’t exist.
In a conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien, the pre-Christian C. S. Lewis described stories as “lies, though breathed through silver.” As sub-creators, we know our work amounts to much more. Fiction isn’t (or shouldn’t be) mere entertainment to occupy the mind with spangled what-ifs. Every story must contain something that gives it substance, assuring us that it’s beautiful and useful to both ourselves and readers.
When doubt whispers cynically in your ear, spend a moment pondering the following three truths.
1. Fiction Can Reflect the Metanarrative of History
Many elements that appear again and again in fiction are drawn from the overall structure of biblical history. Its primary events establish the foundational pattern for storytelling. The fall from innocence is the inciting incident that introduces the main conflict, the struggle between good and evil is the rising action, and redemption through death is the midpoint. Depending on the genre, the death could be the sacrifice of a deity or hero, but more often it’s the dissolution of the protagonist’s former (heavily flawed) self. An epiphany transforms his identity, worldview, and lifestyle so that he’s strong enough to defeat the antagonistic force in the climax, which ushers in the restoration of wholeness and peace (the denouement).
Christian fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, and the Wingfeather Saga purposefully build on biblical archetypes to remind us of the “old, old story.” But the messianic paradigm in particular has played a role in pagan mythologies (Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and more) even before the incarnation of Christ—a fact that testifies to humanity’s basic understanding of the gospel from the beginning.
Because biblical archetypes are fundamental to storytelling, they tend to be prevalent in books and films whether the writers are Christians or not. Every compelling story possesses a likeness to the inner kernel of reality. (If you’re interested in learning more about the metanarrative of the Great Redemptive Story, check out our guide to engaging plots.)
As we ideate and shape our stories, we have the chance to expose willing hearers to the chords that reverberate throughout reality. An overabundance of inconsequential details clutters real life and obscures the underlying music. But from the dawn of human history, stories have enabled us to filter out the static and heighten the individual notes that we’re rarely attuned to in our day-to-day lives. Through stories, we offer readers an extra degree of clarity.
2. Fiction Can Pose (and Answer) Questions Central to the Human Experience
Since stories are, by nature, thematic distillations of the human experience, we can address a wide range of moral issues that everyone wrestles with. And how can we broaden our limited perspectives to better empathize with others? Through honest discussions and relationships. The most traditional form is face-to-face conversations, but the written word allows us to interact with others across time and space. George R. R. Martin is quoted as having said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” In books, we intentionally enter the viewpoint of authors and characters who are different from us, and as we navigate both foreign and familiar beliefs, we find the touchstones that make us all human, as well as the quirks that make us unique. In so doing, we add more pieces to the complex mosaic of our humanity.
What does it mean to love and encounter the divine? Orual in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces grapples with this question as he undergoes a heart-wrenching, transformative trial.
What does it mean to suffer and endure? Zusak’s personification of Death in The Book Thief watches and learns powerful lessons from an old man and a little girl in the middle of Nazi Germany.
Open a book and climb into someone else’s mind for a while. Then flip the script and remember that, as a writer, you’re expanding readers’ perceptions too. Your fiction is not fanciful fluff but a connection with others that helps them see themselves and the world from a new angle. Every question a story asks represents the start of a journey of growth.
3. Fiction Can Reveal and Explore the Process of Human Growth
The opportunity to trigger change in readers is one of the strongest arguments for the value and “realness” of fiction. As we bring characters through their arcs, we showcase their development on both an inward (thoughts) and outward (actions) level. We can deconstruct the protagonist’s lie shard by shard, or emphasize a simple virtue. However big or small, stories are a record of change.
When we get lost in a book, we keep a tether on ourselves while temporarily coalescing with the POV character, which challenges and equips us to pursue growth alongside him. Sermons and lectures can’t match the potential housed in this reader/character union, because it involves the whole person via emotions and psychology.
Brandon Sanderson is one author who consistently puts his characters through thought-provoking growth arcs. His series The Stormlight Archive is packed with examples. One of the most impactful for me is Dalinar, a man in the second half of his life who’s saddled with a daunting and undesired leadership role while rehashing the traumas and foolishness of his youth. His missteps encourage me to be mindful of my own past so that I continue to learn from and move beyond it instead of repeating the same mistakes.
Character arcs can be life-changing—for both readers and the writer. As we tackle knotty questions and mentally inhabit our characters, we open ourselves up to new revelations. Those insights extend to readers because the story’s events become irreversibly ingrained in their memories as if they lived through each one. A friend of mine’s impetus for reflection and growth is Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. She introduced me to the story while I was in college, and it’s affected me similarly to this day.
C. S. Lewis’s love of Beatrix Potter’s stories as a child led him to create his own world of anthropomorphic animals called Boxen. And, as we all know, he later wrote the classic Chronicles of Narnia—stories that are chock-full of talking animals and Christian symbolism.
Truly powerful stories resonate beyond the fictional realm, rippling into the real world and proving that the characters and messages within are far more than figments of the author’s imagination.
More Than Real
Fiction is like a snowball, rolling over and over again in our minds, gathering the dust and accretion of our passions, hurts, and desires until an entity forms on the page. To call fiction untruth is to invalidate the metanarrative that it points to, ignore the universal questions of humanity that it poses, and discredit the possibility of triggering transformation in readers.
Fiction can highlight the archetypes of our reality. It can bind us into the patchwork of our shared experiences and questions. It can unveil the pathways to our destruction and redemption. And it can ferry pieces of ourselves into the heart and mind of anyone who picks up and reads our stories.
If that’s not real, I don’t know what is.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.