Why are Stories So Important?
As human beings, we are creative creatures and storytellers by nature. I believe this comes, in part (or in whole) with being made in the image of God, the perfect Creator and master storyteller.
But why do we do it?
Apart from transcribing or telling of things that actually happened, why do we take the time to tell stories about places that don't actually exist with people who've we've never met or never actually lived doing things that never happened? More importantly, why do the fictional stories we know aren't real have so much power to uplift, influence, and inspire us?
Amazingly, even the stories of the highest fantasy have the ability to convey profound truth. I know what you're thinking, though. How can stories built on what amounts to a collection of lies be truthful?
Well, even a fictional tale of imagined characters and made up events can communicate the joys and sorrows of life with remarkable effectiveness.
Even if the events of the story aren't true, we often recognize emotions, motivations, actions, and behavior that is true to the human condition and maybe we've encountered and experienced in our own lives.
Of course, we do need direct, objective truth in life, but it's often through art and story and imagery that we convey the beauty and complexity of things like love, joy, courage, and triumph as well as sorrow, betrayal, fear, and doubt. These are emotions that aren't always transcribed or transmitted as concretely.
For example, it's one thing to say that fathers love their children, it's another to see that love play out in Marlin's quest to rescue his son in Finding Nemo.
Father/Son stories are abundant in the canon of great narrative, however, a story like Finding Nemo is very distinct both tonally and emotionally from The Empire Strikes Back, Big Fish, or The Godfather. Each communicates something profound about that relationship that is both meaningful and specific.
Similarly, it's one thing to say that God loves His creation. Comparing God's love to that of a father to his children or shepherd to a lost sheep deepens our understanding of this love.
This is what stories and images provide. Context but also understanding.
That doesn't mean that every story is good, well-written, or honest. In a world obsessed with narrative and imagery, a lot of what is being communicated today is genuine nonsense.
Unfortunately, a lie masked by a well-told story can sometimes be more convincing than a direct truth, especially if the listener lacks discernment or awareness. Truth, therefore, must be at the heart of all communication, including fiction.
When it comes to our children, few things have as much shaping power as what they see, hear, or read about. Children are easily influenced, which is why there is an added responsibility on the storyteller to be as honest as possible.
For this reason, the kinds of stories our children read, watch, and listen to do matter.
Our children don't become Hobbits, mermaids, or superheroes by reading about them or pretending to be them. They are very much still human boys and girls. That will never change. But they can begin to identify values they want to develop, behavior they want to imitate, or paths they wish to avoid in their own lives.
Whether true or fictional, stories are some of the most important building blocks for these discoveries.
In most stories, the main character discovers something about themself, others, and the world through their encounters with strange characters, other worlds, and unexpected challenges.
For example, in Neil Gaiman's Coraline, Gaiman takes his main character on a journey through a magical door and into a world that mirrors her own.
The story begins in a humble flat in the rural countryside where Coraline lives with her parents. We quickly realize, though, that this environment is not suitable for a young explorer like Coraline.
Coraline's new house is cold and dreary. Her parents spend all day in their studies, typing away on their computers, too preoccupied, too busy, and too distracted to notice Coraline or share in her adventures. Everything about Coraline’s world is like one of her dad’s recipes, disgusting and boring.
She lives in a house she cannot call home, and like many children, she feels alone in her own world. It's no surprise that her discovery of a door to another world is a welcome, though unexpected, invitation to perhaps change her circumstances.
In this magical other world, everything is colorful and warm, and here the food is delicious. In this world she can have whatever she wants.
This magic, at first glance, accentuates the undesirables of the life she's left behind. But as Coraline begins to explore the other side of the mysterious door, she discovers that it is fun but also incredibly dangerous.
In the vein of many classic tales and myths, the hero must pull back the layers of illusion and fantasy to uncover the more sinister nature of one who means to do her harm.
Coraline was once captivated by the possibilities of the other world, as most children would be, but she soon becomes captive to it, struggling to escape the clutches of the soulless, monstrous, button-eyed Other Mother.
Once she has escaped, however, Coraline learns that her real parents have been taken hostage by the other mother, reminding us all that even parents need rescuing sometimes too. And in order to rescue her real mom and dad, Coraline must face her greatest fear and return to the other world.
Here, the main theme of Coraline shines through, according to Neil Gaiman:
Bravery is not found in the absence of fear. It is found in being afraid but doing the right thing anyway.
Through her bravery and perilous adventures in the other world, Coraline learns that she would much rather live with her imperfect parents in the real world than live with the soulless Other Mother in the fictional one.
“I don’t want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn’t mean anything. What then?”
Life will never be perfect. Coraline won't get everything she wants. Her parents will never be everything she wants them to be. They will be too busy to participate in all of her adventures and will continue making horrible dinners, but they will be her parents. They will love her, and that's what matters most.
Her perspective has changed, and in this discovery, she chooses an imperfect reality over fantasy.
Fiction, fairy tales, mythical journeys, and an occasional run-in with a Jedi, Hobbit, or friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, often involve some form of physical change.
The scrawny kid who goes into the super lab with the radioactive spider is not the same one who emerges with a nasty bug bite and a new six pack to show for it.
The Hobbit who leaves the Shire to destroy the One Ring is very different than the Hobbit who returns a year later.
Likewise, the reader who picks up a book, the little girl who goes into the movie theater, or the shy boy playing with toy dinosaurs in the backyard are never quite the same when the story is over.
The Pevensie children of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, the Darling children of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Alice in Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland, and Coraline in Gaiman's Coraline must all eventually return to the real world at some point, as readers must inevitably break from the story and return to their regular lives.
However, like the fictional heroes in these stories, readers will have discovered something during their time in the world of the story that can influence how they respond to life in the real one.
Coraline learns that she truly loves her parents but also that she is braver than even she knew. Change for readers may not be physical. It doesn't have to be.
A shy boy braving his first day at a new school or dealing with the emotions of his first crush may be just as new and uncomfortable as a kid trying to control his new superpowers or figure out how he's going to protect his neighborhood.
Our children experience more change than anyone.
Stories, however, provide a mirror for self-examination, a lens for observation, and a laboratory for the foundation of worldview, the fostering of life goals, and the development of essential life skills.
They are one of the few environments where children especially are encouraged to examine life without the consequences of a much more tangible and sometimes unforgiving world.
Of course, we cannot live in fiction forever. We don't live in those worlds. We will never meet these characters. And there is a substantial difference between fantasy and reality.
However, where well-told, engaging story may captivate a reader, one that has something to say that is specific and truthful will speak to others in remarkable ways.
There's a reason why Coraline opens with the famous quote from GK Chesterton.
“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist; but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
The real world can be a dark, dangerous and dreary place. A story may provide a temporary escape, but it can also help us find hope, courage, and the means to face and defeat dragons, real and figurative, when the real world is not safe.