In theory, humans could live without stories. In practice, few do. Stories play a major role in human culture. Stories aren’t needed for physical survival, but we need them for reasons that go beyond physical life. That’s because we’re more than physical beings. And stories can be deeply satisfying to our minds.
Stories are a form of diversion. After a day of humdrum work, people often like to curl up with a novel or watch a movie. But stories are more than mere entertainment. We could be entertained by a sports event, a board game, or a cat video. A good story can touch us on a deeper level than any of these.
Stories provide things we don’t get in real life. Stories allow us to experience the satisfaction of deep human longings vicariously through the characters.
What We Like to Experience Vicariously.
Often, we like to read about characters experiencing things we’d never want to experience in real life. These stories allow us to experience excitement and the thrill of overcoming great obstacles–from the comfort of our armchairs.
Many of us prefer to experience this vicariously through fiction and movies than to experience it in real life. We want our own lives to be comfortable and safe–but lives like that wouldn’t make good fiction.
Real life can be monotonous. Fiction allows us to experience excitement vicariously and safely. And it can make our day-to-day lives seem like a relief.
When reading a novel or watching a movie for the first time, part of the fun is the suspense of not knowing what will happen next. We see the hero is in literal or figurative danger, and long to see him escape it. But things get worse and worse–and it looks less and less likely that he’ll make it.
Heroes–people who defeat great evils against overwhelming odds–make great characters in stories. We’d like to see real people overcome real-life problems like this. Not that we actually want to experience these problems for ourselves. But heroes, whether real or fictitious, give us people to admire.
In a way, we may want to be like these people. We may wish we were as brave and daring as they. At least, we wish to experience the victory over evil without the suffering involved.
What We Really Want
Stories also allow us the vicarious experience of things we really want through the lives of the characters. In real life, these things often seem elusive. But seeing fictional characters achieve them provides a sense of satisfaction.
According to Tom Clancy, the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. Real life often feels meaningless and full of senseless tragedy.
We long for purpose in life. Animals may be content with eating, sleeping, eluding predators and reproducing. But humans often long for more.
We long to see justice done in the world. We long to see wrongs redressed and wrongdoers punished. In real life, the bad guys don’t always get punished. They may be too powerful, or they may elude the authorities. But we can enjoy seeing them get their comeuppance in fiction.
It’s been said that a person can live three weeks without food, three days without water, so many minutes without air–and not at all without hope. Hope keeps us going. In fiction, we long to see characters maintain hope even in seemingly hopeless situations. And these stories can inspire us to maintain hope in our own lives.
We’ve all made mistakes. Sometimes, we’ve made big ones. And our decisions have consequences. Often, we long to go back in time and make other decisions to escape those consequences. Since we can’t do that, we long for a way to get past the results of our bad choices.
A story in which a character can somehow transcend the consequences of her mistakes and rise above them can be truly thrilling.
Is it an Escape?
So is it escapism to run away to a fictional world where we can experience these things, instead of facing reality’s hard facts and humdrum days? Just because an author constructed a story in which the hero is redeemed from his past mistakes and defeats the bad guys in a seemingly hopeless situation doesn’t mean that things happen that way in real life.
No doubt people do use fiction to escape reality. Sometimes, this is unhealthy.
However, our longing for order, justice, and hope is part of being human. When we hear of a murder going unpunished, or of an innocent person being sentenced for a crime, we feel indignation crying out “This is wrong!”
If the world really is hopeless and meaningless, then fiction based in hope and meaning is an escape–and it is no wonder people should seek escape from such a world. Fiction can be based in hopelessness and meaninglessness, but many people see such stories as unsatisfying. People can be educated into thinking they like them, or perhaps actually liking them. And they can appeal to morbid personalities. However, they are not as entertaining to the masses as a good old-fashioned tale of a hero who slays a dragon and rescues a maiden.
However, if the world really does have hope and purpose, then the hope and purpose in fiction are reflections of reality. And then, it’s not escapism to seek them in fiction. We don’t like to think we live in a world with no hope.
So which is the correct view of the world? We’re now into the realm of religion and philosophy.
Why are we so fond of experiencing hope and purpose vicariously through the lives of fictional characters? Why would a story inspire us to take heart or take action when we know the story never really happened?
It’s almost as if our minds are designed to respond to stories. They touch our hearts and capture our imaginations. They broaden our minds’ horizons.Things that never happened can stir us deep in our souls by touching our deep desires to see justice done and goodness triumph.
We like stories because they entertain us and divert us from the humdrum of real life. And because they can allow us to experience, through the characters, hope and redemption against seemingly impossible odds.