Why We Tell Stories
As human beings, we are creative creatures and storytellers by nature. I believe this comes, in part (or in whole) from being made in the image of God, the perfect Creator and master storyteller.
But why do we do we actually have a desire to tell stories and why do they matter?
Apart from transcribing or telling others about things that actually happened, why do we take the time to tell stories about places that don't actually exist, featuring 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 in the real world?
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?
Believe it or not, 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 didn’t happen, we often recognize emotions, motivations, actions, and behavior that is true to the human condition in all its glory and brokenness. Often we've encountered and experienced many of these truths our own lives.
Of course, we do need direct, objective truth in life, but it's often through art, 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.
For example, it's one thing to say that fathers love their children. It's quite another to see that love play out in Marlin's quest to rescue his son in Finding Nemo.
Father/son stories, of course, are abundant, however, a film like Finding Nemo is very different, both tonally and emotionally, from, say, The Empire Strikes Back, Big Fish, or The Godfather. Each communicates something profound about the relationship between fathers and their sons in their own way.
This is what stories and images provide. Context but also understanding.
That doesn't mean that every story is good, well-written, or truthful. In a world obsessed with narrative and imagery, a lot of what is communicated today is total nonsense.
Sadly, 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 or the storyteller is particularly effective. Truth, therefore, must be at the heart of all communication, including fiction.
When it comes to children, especially, 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 those of us called to write stories for children to be as honest as possible.
Our children don't become Hobbits, mermaids, or superheroes by reading about these characters 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, behavior, or paths they should adopt or avoid in their own lives.
Whether true or fictional, stories are some of the most important building blocks for these discoveries.
Likewise, in most stories, the characters discover something about themselves, others, and the world they live in through their encounters with others characters, other worlds, and unexpected challenges and adventures.
For example, in Neil Gaiman's Coraline, the author 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. How many young readers can relate? 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, highlights 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 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 realizes an even greater fear: her real parents have been taken hostage by the other mother, reminding us all that even parents need rescuing sometimes too. But in order to rescue her real mom and dad, Coraline must summon personal courage to 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 probably continue making horrible dinners, but they will be her parents. They will love her, and that's what matters most.
In a little over a hundred and fifty pages, Coraline’s perspective has changed, helping her choose an imperfect reality over a dangerous fantasy.
Fiction, fairy tales, mythical journeys, or 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 and they return to the real world.
The return is essential.
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 their normal lives some point, as readers must inevitably break from the story and return to life around them.
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 save her parents.
Our children experience more change in their early years of life 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 the world of fiction. 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.