What Can Fiction Do?

I talked a few weeks ago about the purpose of fiction and shared that, for me, its purpose is “to challenge my readers’ pre-conceived ideas about faith and its role in the world.” I want to take those thoughts a little farther today by exploring what fiction is actually capable of accomplishing. Can a story actually change something about a person’s behavior, actions, or ideas?

My basic argument is that fiction can affect a person’s thoughts, but not his actions.

Let’s unpack that a little.

I don’t think that a person will do something differently just because of a story she read or watched or played. At least, not because of the story alone. For example, let’s say our hypothetical consumer of ficiton watches a movie that encourages her to do more to do more to take care of the poor. She already believes this is important but has never done much about it, despite that belief. A situation many of us have found ourselves in one way or another, I’m sure. Will watching this movie inspire her to finally act on her belief? I don’t think so.

Let’s try a different scenario. Another hypothetical consumer fiction has never given the poor a thought in his life watches that same movie. I think there’s a much better chance that he will ultimately end up taking some action to help the poor. Why? Because the piece of fiction made him do it? No, because it challenged his thinking, opened his worldview to something new. It is the shift in his perspective that will lead to action, not the movie. I believe that fiction can bring about such a shift in perspective, but not inspire direct action.

This reveals the root of the problem I have with most of what’s called “Christian fiction.” It aims to encourage us to do things we already know we should be doing. Those movies and books want to prompt action based on beliefs that their target audiences already hold but aren’t acting on. Pray more, be a better husband/wife, read your Bible, these works tell us. But if we already know we should be doing these things, the only response such pieces of fiction elicit is to make us feel good about seeing a movie that affirms as important the same things we think are important. At best, we make a resolution to do better in that area, but we’ve probably made similar resolutions plenty of times before. Ultimately, we come away unchanged. What good is that?

Fiction has power when it challenges our beliefs rather than affirming them. Fiction should force us to consider things we haven’t considered before, or to examine a long-held value in a new light. That change in thinking is what will push us to act. The change in perspective gives birth to changed actions.

What do you think? Can fiction directly affect our actions or is its power restricted to our minds and perceptions?

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