Fiction is more than inspiring. It’s life changing. No, I’m not being dramatic. Stories change the way we think. They change our perception of other and ourselves. How do stories do this? By empathy and emotion. We’ve all felt like the main character of a story before. We shoot arrows with Katniss, jump trains with Tris, and throw the ring into Mount Doom with Frodo. We are able to imagine ourselves as these characters so easily because the authors have created characters that we empathize with. So what happens when characters we see as ourselves go through things that we haven’t? I’ll let this quote answer that question.
Have you ever felt so connected to a story that it’s as if you experienced it in real life? There’s a good reason why: your brain actually believes that you have experienced it. When we read, the brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. Whether reading or experiencing it, the same neurological regions are stimulated. —Your Brain on Books
That’s pretty amazing right? We can experience things through fiction that we never could have in our own lives and be changed as a result because, it’s not just the character making tough decisions and helping others, it’s us. Researchers call this “experience taking.” We aren’t just understanding the character, we are taking a little of them inside of us and change ourselves in the process.
Characters we empathize with plays only a part in how a story changes us. Did you know that behind every piece of fiction is an theme or idea? Every story has a lesson to teach—a message to share. With every book we read, we are being taught something whether we realize it or not.
Research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, 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 seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape. —Jonathan Gottschall
So, a story is more than just a story. It is an experience that shapes us and changes our beliefs by making us more susceptible to new ideas though our emotions. Think of stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe that helped bring about the Civil War by convincing readers that skin color doesn’t make a person any more or less of a human being, and that enslavement is wrong. Or Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that impacted the current society’s views on Christmas. Fiction can even change rules in business. “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair was responsible for changing sanitary laws in the meatpacking industry (although what he was trying to do through the book was open people’s eyes to the mistreatment of immigrants, but that’s for another time).
Some would even say that fiction’s power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies is dangerous. Plato wanted the city fathers of Athens to exile all poets and storytellers because he saw them as a threat to society. Writers deal with ideas, like politicians, but not in the open, rational manner. Instead, they conceal their ideas inside the seductive emotions of art.
In his book “Story” Robert Mckee says, “Every effective story sends a charged idea out to us, in effect compelling the idea into us, so that we must believe. In fact, the persuasive power of a story is so great that we may believe its meaning even if we find it morally repellent.”
Every story we read changes us little by little, like each seasoning added in the pot changes a soup. All of you writers out there—whether you’ve working on your first blog post or you’re a published author—you have the power to change people’s lives. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.
Story by Robert McKee
This is part of my Operation Inspiration series. Click the button for more inspiration. 🙂