Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Short Tidbit on Fiction

Does fiction build the morality of individuals and societies, or does it break it down?

Since I make no secret as to my love of literature, fantasy, fiction, and the wild imaginings of an active mind, obviously I think it is.  However, I want to bring to light what exactly fascinates me about fiction (on the silver screen, and in the pages of a book)- and how it can be used for evil, or for good. 

By the way, this post is written with a very special friend in mind, and she of the skeptical mind knows who she is.  I’m not naming names, though, so live with the knowledge that you know who you are!

There is an argument among some that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive, and I would agree that it most certainly can be.  However, I would also argue that it can be uplifting and character building as well.  It is a double edged sword, in ways, and can either preserve and defend, or maim and kill.

Until recently, we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation. 

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. In fact, the more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence (Hello, Tolkien?). In fact, the study shows that fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this makes us moldable in ways we typically are not.  Again, an opportunity, but also a hazard.

Psychologist Raymond Mar writes, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fictional] narrative.” For example, studies reliably show that when we watch a TV show that treats gay families nonjudgmentally (say, “Modern Family”), our own views on homosexuality are likely to move in the same nonjudgmental direction. History, too, reveals fiction’s ability to change our values at the societal level, for better and worse. For example, the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” inflamed racist sentiments and helped resurrect an all but defunct KKK.

So, those who are concerned about the messages in fiction — whether they are conservative or progressive — have a point. Fiction is dangerous because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies.  I’ll totally agree with that.  However, it is just as capable of building up a young boy to desire to be a modern day knight in shining armor, as well.

Like any other tool, fiction can be used to great advantage, but if placed in the wrong hands can also do much harm.  Be careful how you wield that sword, friends, for you can very easily cut with the wrong side of the blade…


  1. "Like any other tool, fiction can be used to great advantage..."

    I agree. The Bible uses fictional stories to illustrate certain truths, and we can do the same.

    1. Absolutely!

      I must say, writing a short tidbit on this topic was hard for me. I had so much I could have said!!!

    2. You should write a long post sometime. :D

  2. Great post. So true. . . they've also found that as smoking is portrayed less glamorously in TV and film, kids are smoking less! People often don't give writers enough credit(or blame) for the influence they have over behavior ;)

    1. That is so true!!! The power writers have over the mind... it is frightening, in some ways. I equate my responsibility to my readers (blog readers or book readers) the way a pastor does his congregation. God says the Pastor will be held accountable for the things he says and teaches, and I believe that I, too, will be held accountable for what I write.

      That is an interesting tidbit, by the way, on smoking. Thanks for bringing it up!

  3. Finally, someone who approaches fiction with a sense of responsibility.

    LOL, the smoking thing just proves what we already knew . . . entertainment DOES create behavior. People try to justify presenting graphic immorality by claiming it's just fictional--kids know what's real and what's fake, etc. But the truth is opposite. The more something is glamorized, the more people are inclined to do ii!

  4. Great post, so great it's worth commenting on it a month late! (*cough* A certain someone is trying to catch up on blogs today...) I agree; fiction is an extremely powerful tool. The fact that we let our guard down while reading fiction proves the theory that "preachy" fiction doesn't work; if you're going to write it like a sermon, people put their guard up, and they aren't going to get the message. Natural, engaging, "organic" (as my screenwriting mentor would call it) fiction, on the other hand, can bypass the reader's defenses and sell them a message they might otherwise not listen to. While this can, like anything under the sun, be used for evil, it's exactly why we Christians need to write moving and effective stories with godly protagonists!

    1. *is delighted to have you reply, no matter how "late" *

      I absolutely agree! You know, in studying my brother's responses to literary characters over the years, I have found that they are more likely to want to emulate a strong character with honorable, godly characteristics, because the focus on the story was the character and his actions, then they are a character in a story that is in a book with a strong Christian message.

      Why? Because the focus of the story is different.

      For example. We love Pilgrim's Progress, but my brother's don't try to emulate Pilgrim. The focus of Pilgrim's Progress is on the allegory and the Christian symbolism, not on the character and heroism of Christian.

      What do we want to accomplish in our writing? That, to me, should dictate what and how we write. I want to create examples for my readers. Characters that are not flawless, but strive to do what is right and honorable.


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