On the Purpose of Fiction

Actions are largely driven by emotional responses, which in turn are created by thoughts.

Now, a man may, of course, act a given way through cool reflection: because he sees it is the thing to do. But he will not do so reliably. The head rules the hands through the heart. A man becomes moral or immoral when he reliably acts a certain way, which he does because he has an instinctive visceral reaction to the event. That is to say, a habit of thought; he runs through the pattern “I see X. X means Y. The proper response to Y is Z” without even having to be aware of it. “I could look at that man’s cards. That is cheating. A gentleman does not cheat. If I were to do that, I would not be a gentleman.” The man for whom this has become a clear conviction would be only vaguely aware of this thought process, but would feel the emotional revulsion to the idea of cheating at cards.

The thing is, it is the ‘a gentleman does not cheat’ that gives the thought its power. A philosophical dissertation on why cheating is wrong may be useful, but it creates little in the way of emotional power. For most people, the argument for why cheating is wrong simply will not fit into a pattern of thought; it’s too complex and requires too many other ideas. Besides which, ideas and actions do not quite overlap. It is one thing to define cheating, it is another to know it when you see it. The will and the intellect are separate faculties.

Therefore, the best way to translate a moral idea into the will is often to frame it in a concrete image.

This is why children tend to follow what their parents do rather than what they say. Words are just words; they are a step removed from the will. But actions are an expression of the will, and so are easier and more natural to imitate.

Most of our moral instruction, therefore, is based on imitation, whether of people we meet in real life or people we have presented before us as examples (much of the rest depends on platitudes or proverbs; easily repeatable thought patterns). We see the example and, based on how it is presented and how it seems to fit into our understanding, we have a certain emotional response; the figure is presented to us as admirable and attractive and so we form the thought “such-and-such an action is like what so-and-so does, therefore it is positive.”

This principle, of course, reaches its highest form in Our Lord Himself, who presents the ultimate image of what we ought to imitate. The next step from there are the Saints, who present concrete examples of what that imitation looks like (indeed, in a sense all moral behavior is imitation of Christ one way or another). Then we have historic, legendary, and cultural heroes, while the most basic example is imitation of the people around us.

At the same time, and built into all of this, is the idea of narrative; the pattern we detect in events and the meaning we discern from that pattern. The actions of exemplary figures, such as Christ or national heroes, is exemplary primarily due to the narrative surrounding them. We regard Winston Churchill as a hero because we understand the narrative as being the forces of liberty and civilization triumphing over barbarism. If we read it as a stubborn Capitalistic-Reactionary standing against and thwarting the destiny of the German people, we would have a very different view of the man, though we may still admire his courage and wit. In any case, the narrative creates the impression of what is admirable and what is not.

As indicated by the example, a narrative may be nearer or farther from the truth, which must be determined on quite different grounds (obviously the mere fact of being a narrative says nothing of its truth or falsehood). But the narrative provides a framework within which we find the concrete illustrations of moral principles. That whole topic will probably require an essay in itself.

Which brings us to fiction, which is the deliberate creation of a concrete moral image within a narrative. Almost like a diagram or drawing of values.   

Something that is often overlooked in discussions of people is the simple fact that human beings exist in time. Their nature is expressed over the course of a sequence of events, and in the context of other events that have taken place. A man logically implies a family, a community, a nation, a culture, and a history (thus the Incarnation of God as man logically includes a nation and culture for Him to be incarnate into, which is one reason the Old Testament cannot be simply ignored). The image of a man properly speaking is an image in time and in the context of events. Thus the proper image of a moral idea must likewise be the image of a series of events.  

Hence the human art of storytelling to provide that image, context, and the accompanying emotional response.

The latter is important, because we don’t only have to see the idea acted out, we have experience a proper emotional reaction to it. A positive emotion to a good image and a negative to bad one.

Again, a gentleman does not cheat. We are presented with an attractive figure of a gentleman, who does things that we naturally like. Say, he is shown to be courageous or kind to children. Then we see that when offered the opportunity to cheat, he turns away in disgust because that is not what a gentleman does. It is part of the moral idea we are presented with that cheating is no part of it. The image would be made more effective if his refusal to cheat led to hardship or sacrifice of some kind.

There was a Lois and Clark episode that actually did this very scenario; where Clark was playing cards with Perry, Lois, and Jimmy and losing badly. He’s sorely tempted to use his x-ray vision to cheat, but he refrains because that’s not what Superman does.

The idea is that the course of events, the narrative, will create the emotional response “this kind of behavior is good; it is what I would like to be” and “this kind of behavior is bad; I don’t want to be like that.” Then in the real world, you mentally associate similar situations with the events you saw or read or heard in the story, prompting a similar emotional response. “This is like when Clark had the opportunity to cheat, but he chose to be honest instead. I want to be like Clark, so I don’t want to cheat.”

The actual thought passes in an instant, but it gives you the visceral response that prompts you to want to act this way or not to act that way.

Now, just as complex ideas are composed of simpler ones and complex arguments are links of axioms, so the language of stories is composed of basic visceral responses. Kindness and Courage, for instance. Beauty is another one; we naturally want to sympathize with someone beautiful. So is humor; an amusing character can remain likable beyond any reason (e.g. Loki in the MCU, or Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon). So, all things being equal, we make the figures whom we want people to like beautiful, kind, courageous, and amusing. We make the ones we want people not to like ugly, cruel, cowardly, and dour. Likely not all in one, since they need to be effective enough to create a story, but we send clear signals that you do not want to be like this person.

Hence, Christians in modern fiction are almost always humorless scolds at best, because we naturally do not like that kind of person or want to be like them. Therefore, we experience a visceral reaction against that figure.

(I rather think the general inertia of modern Christians is due, at least in part, to this effect, reacting against the figures portrayed both in fiction and supposed non-fiction: sheer repetition of negative images of Christians creates it as a pattern of thought in our mind. When faced with standing up for ourselves and the truth, we automatically think in terms of “that kind of Christian” and instinctively react against it. Basically, we’ve had a form of depression imposed upon us).

This pattern is clearest in the old fairy tales. Cinderella is an impoverished noblewoman forced to act as a servant to her wicked stepsisters and stepmother. But because she remains humble and kind, she is rewarded with a supernatural grace which marks her out and which eventually elevates her far above them. We viscerally sympathize with Cinderella because 1. She is beautiful, 2. She is kind, and 3. She is being treated unjustly. Even simply laying those out: “Cinderella is a beautiful and kind girl who was treated unjustly” is enough to evoke a simple moral response and to make us think “I am on her side.” Taken as a whole, the story creates the moral response “it is good to be patient and humble in the face of adversity and injustice” (incidentally, this is why I think the live action Cinderella is one of the few Disney remakes that actually works; because it’s simply a straight-forward telling of the story).

Lily James in Cinderella (2015)

Obviously, not many stories are quite as simple as that. There are usually quite a few and complex responses being conveyed by a given story or set of characters, even in a relatively straightforward story. If you take something like a Honeymooners episode, for instance, you have the specific plot of the episode; say, the Christmas one where Ralph ends up selling his new bowling ball to get Alice the present she wants, conveying the idea of generosity. But you also have the whole dynamic of Ralph and Alice’s abrasive, but loving relationship, Ralph and Ed’s friendship, and the give-and-take of their working-class existence. The show makes us sympathize with the Kramdens, even as we laugh at their antics, and makes us want to imitate them to an extent (e.g. being good-hearted like Ralph or patient-but-sharp like Alice).

The Honeymooners (1955)

Things grow more sophisticated and more complicated with meatier stories. Emma could be summed up as a story about overcoming vanity and the assumption that one knows what is best for others (which is itself a pretty sophisticated idea to impart), but there’s a great deal more going on at the same time, such as snobbery, presumption, patience with the irritating and ridiculous, affairs of the heart, matters of honesty, and so on. The ideas conveyed are subtler and more sophisticated, but once again they are conveyed, even if the reader doesn’t recognize them. We come away hoping to avoid being as vain and snobbish as Emma is in her worst moments and hoping to be as compassionate, sensible, and loyal as she is in her best.

Romola Garai in Emma (2009)
2009 BBC version is the best adaptation, btw

So, I would argue, the primary purpose of fiction is to inculcate moral responses through vicarious emotions.

When I say primary purpose, I don’t, of course, mean that this is what necessarily what anyone who sets out to write a story has in mind. They may not have thought of the matter at all. Nor do I mean that any given story might not be primarily intended by its creator to do something else.

My point is that this is what stories in fact do whether they do anything else. They create an emotional response through the actions of the characters, with the response being either positive or negative, forming patterns of thought that incline us this way or that. It may be a very small effect, it may be a great one, but unless the story has utterly failed as a story – not just as a bad story, like Captain Marvel but to the point where you can’t really take it as a ‘story’ at all, like Octaman – it will not be nothing.

(Not to digress too far, but this is a point to be clarified; there is a difference between a bad story and a work that doesn’t really even function as a story, just as there is a difference between bad acting and non-acting. It is the difference between a book where the characters are carboard, the plot makes no attempt at consistency, and the dialogue is all cliché and a book where the grammar and spelling are so bad that it doesn’t actually convey any coherent narrative to your mind at all. Such books or films can be very entertaining, but not as stories).

This is why stories are so important; they inculcate values, and our values determine how we behave. They are not the only things that do this, as noted above, but they are very powerful tools in that regard. Just as a thousand word description of Audrey Hepburn would not have the same impact as a single photograph, so a five-page dissertation on the nature of courage will not have the same impact as a well-written ‘Conan’ story.

Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions (1959)

And I would argue that popular, ‘light’ fiction, the pulps and ‘penny dreadfuls’ and children’s tales are perhaps the most important of all in this regard. Because there the emotional response has to be on point. The author can’t rely on reputation, or clever ideas, or stylistic elegance to make people want to read his work; he has to hit close to the basic, fundamental language of value. As Chesterton put it in his seminal work on the subject, “The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.”

Thus popular fiction, it seems to me, tends to be naturally reactionary in its values, regardless of the author’s intentions. It is here that kings and princesses thrive, great individual leaders take center stage, men are heavily masculine and women very feminine, and things like honor and courage and loyalty make up the major themes. Even when it preaches revolutionary doctrine, a work of popular fiction most often needs to have traditional values at its core in order to make people pay attention. Harry Potter, for instance, has some trendy talk of tolerance and racism and so forth, but these lie on the surface of a story about dueling ancient families, the legacy of fathers, friendship, honor, loyalty, and love, with damsels to be rescued and monsters to be slain. Even something as crude as the Friday the 13th series ultimately rests on the idea of punishment for transgressions and the past rising up to strike those who do not respect it. The author may intentionally create a progressive or radical scenario or character, but only intentionally, and the traditionalist values remains the default perspective, because that is how such stories work. Sure, Joss Whedon can have a whole episode of Firefly painting prostitution as triumphantly feminist, but he’s still going to have Kaylee being kidnapped and menaced by the villain of the week every other episode and showing off Mal’s patriarchal authority because that is what makes for an interesting story of this type.

Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
What? No, this essay isn’t just an excuse to post pictures of beautiful women.

In short, popular fiction, I would argue, is one of the strongest bulwarks of traditional values. Simply put, they can’t afford to be otherwise. Not unless those values have been thoroughly extricated from the audience.

For herein also lies the danger; popular fiction, like Minas Tirith, is a mighty fortress, but it is not invincible. And if it is taken, then the situation really is desperate. Why do you think the Soviets spent millions of dollars a year funding Communist agents in Hollywood? They understood that even a little evil slipped into popular fiction would, if done consistently, be more effective in transforming the west than reams and reams of direct propaganda. Because the fiction creates the values, and the values determine which side someone will and will not listen to in the first place. We come to naturally associate one person with the evil racists or heartless fat cats we see all the time in films and books, and the other person with the poor innocent whom they insult and oppress, and the argument is over before it begins. We don’t even look long enough to notice that the former does real good for real people while the latter is narcissistic to the point of insanity. We see the pattern and react automatically according to the value judgments inculcated, in part, by the fiction we consume.

This is why popular fiction must be taken very seriously, and all efforts to remove or alter classic works must be strenuously resisted. This is also why it is so important that new and vibrant authors of good will to produce good work and we the audience should be seeking out and supporting such works. If our culture is sick because it’s been drinking polluted water, then the thing to do is to provide clean water. Or at least good beer.  

1 thought on “On the Purpose of Fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s