Every so often, when I criticize a work, I get a response of “OMG! It’s JUST a STORY!”. Last week, someone on Twitter told me I needed to learn the difference between reality and fiction (sadly, I was talking about politicians saying silly things in public and I’m pretty sure they’re real).
Yes. It’s just a story and no actual people are harmed in the creation of a work of fiction. However, the story itself can harm people. Misrepresentation causes direct harm.
Stories are how humans understand and communicate their world. When my husband, Bryan, gives his workshop on Digital Storytelling, he asks the audience, “What is a story?”. There is always a flurry of answers, but when he asks, “What is NOT a story?” the room goes silent.
It is very hard to find any human communication that doesn’t have an element of narrative running through it. Our very identities are held together by something called “narrative memory”. Every time we tell a story, the memory gets re-encoded. That’s one reason (they think) that talk therapy works for dealing with trauma. If you tell the story in a safe situation, to a safe person, the memories might still be strong, but talking about it shifts the emotions to something tolerable. The people at most risk for things like PTSD are those who are unable to share their stories.
If you want to persuade a person, don’t tell them the facts of your argument. When people are confronted with evidence that they are wrong, they tend to dig in their heels and outright dismiss said facts. If you want to persuade someone, tell them a story.
Whether the story is fiction or fact, our brains process the information the same way. We have a filter that picks many elements as “imaginary”, but that is entirely based on our experience in the world and the other narratives we have learned. For instance; by adolescence most kids understand that action movie physics are not real, that helmets are good ideas, that they can’t jump off the roof. But, only because adults TELL THEM STORIES. Often in the form of parental parables that generally include some poor schmo getting hurt/killed by doing some ill advised stunt.
We understand that the monster in the movie isn’t real. But only because our own experience and other narratives we have read/watched/heard tells us it is so. Nothing in the world is self evident.
This is why representation is so important. As I’ve noted before, sometimes writers do people a grave disservice in their efforts to jack up story tension, get cheap laughs, jerk some tears, or get readers invested in a character by misrepresenting either the character themselves OR the character’s emotions/reactions.
Sometimes this is out of ignorance. Sometimes laziness. Unfortunately, this has real world implications. If we don’t have personal experience with something, we MUST base our conclusions on the narratives we have heard.
There are narrative tropes out there that cause havoc in the lives of real people. Rape victims are often disbelieved because they act differently to what we’ve seen in fiction. So, while we KNOW Game of Thrones or Law and Order:SVU is “just” fiction, if we have never been raped, or talked in depth with many rape victims, our understanding of how rape victims act is shaped by these narratives.
The same goes for disability. There are the “Disability is worse than death” narratives, there are the “Supercrip” narratives, there are the “disabled people make great friends (but never lovers)” narratives. There are damned few narratives that just have a disabled person living their lives like everyone else.
I’ve been very saddened by how JK Rowling has handled her writing about magic in the Americas. Unfortunately, she is reiterating the narrative that the Europeans civilized the savages and taught them to improve their magic. In all likelihood, she is unaware of the accepted belief among historians that the Native American Nations were decimated by disease, not conquered by a superior force. I’m saddened because one phone call, or even a glance at Wikipedia could have headed the whole controversy off.
I’m also annoyed by the fans crying “It’s JUST fiction!” This, from the fandom who will jump all over people who spell McGonogoll differently than JKR does, don’t know the intricacies of the NHS or have British people eating pancakes for breakfast. But, I digress.
Someone asked me recently why I would bring the “trans* thing” up in my own work when it didn’t “add to the story.” I’m not sure what that means. I bring it up because I write about people and some people are trans*. Bailey is a lot of things and his gender identity is important to him, however, I don’t think that his gender identity is the only thing he wants to talk about.
I cannot say this enough. It is NEVER “just” a story.