I’m a writer. I specialize in writing fiction, especially science-fiction novels, but I’ve written several short stories, mostly with a sci-fi bent, if not outright. But fiction by definition is a story about something that is not real. Fiction generally uses made-up characters and plot lines, though real people can appear in a fictitious work. Even though it’s made up, much fiction can sound very realistic, even fooling some people into thinking it was real. That’s what Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Bridge of San Luis Rey did to me. I read it in high school. I thought it described a real event, it was so well written. But it isn’t—it’s a novel. It’s all made up. What the hell did I know? I was seventeen at the time. One editor of a journal to whom I’d sent a short story sent me an email asking if the story was fiction or non-fiction. I had to tell him it was a totally fictitious story, but they didn’t print it. (They didn’t like the ending.) That seems to me the ultimate complement a person can give to a writer, that his/her fiction is so real it seems like it really happened. On the other hand, science fiction stories don’t usually have that problem. If you read a story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you know right away it’s total fiction. Or a story about a man dressed vaguely like a bat who fights crime in the most unimaginable ways possible won’t strain your ability to tell fact from fiction.
But that just brings up an important point, a point I’ve wondered about for a long time. Why do we make up stories? There’s a lot of real stories out there all the time. All you have to do is watch the evening news. Yet there are those of us who sit down if front of a computer or a pad of paper and write about things that never happened, and in many cases, could never happen. Why do we do it? As the title of this post asks, don’t we have something better to do? Isn’t there a soup kitchen we could volunteer at? Couldn’t we advocate for processes to reverse climate change? How about a walk in the woods or the wilderness? Strap a pack on your back and set out along the Continental Divide Trail and expand your mind. Take pictures about your experiences and publish a book. Get involved in real life. Anything other than making up stories.
On the face of it, making up stories about fictitious characters and unrealistic situations seems infantile and childish. We’re supposed to be adults. Shouldn’t psychiatrists be concerned that so many people sit for hours split off from society living in their own little worlds making up events that never happened? Well, no.
We write fiction for many reasons, and I suspect every fiction writer has his/her own reasons. Some write to tell a real story but in a way that the real people won’t recognize it, or if they do, will understand that others won’t be able to tell who the real people are. Shakespeare did that. Some, like me, write fiction to entertain, to tell a good story that illuminates a part of real life that only a made-up story can do. Connie Willis did that in her twin novels, Blackout and All Clear. Fiction tells us a little about ourselves in a manner we couldn’t get in any other way. Dr. Seuss did that. Fiction illuminates a small part of our humanity that we never really knew existed. Shakespeare again. There’s a place in this world for fiction, certainly, and we must realize it and get to know it. Advocating to end climate change is important, but if you want something better to do, read a novel. Better yet, write one.