The Power of Make-Believe


Fiction doesn’t get enough respect. Well, I guess I should preface that with the fact that it gets respect from kids and teenagers (if it involves vampires or post-apocalyptic futures), which is interesting because kids and teens are normally the toughest of critics, right? But no, it’s the adults who tend to scoff at the idea of fiction. Sure, we may indulge in the escape of movies and tv shows, but it had better at least be almost true! Ironically, we say that it needs to be believable, before we are willing to suspend belief and enjoy it. Suspending belief is an interesting exercise, because it has to do with trust. We trust the author when she says that, yes, you can get to Hogwarts by taking loading dock 9 and three-quarters, or hobbits exist, or wardrobes are magical doorways, or fairy dust and happy thoughts can make us fly. We trust that our faith will be rewarded, hopefully, with some sort of truth. I think that fiction gets a bad reputation among adults because we forget that there are different kinds of truths.

Nonfiction brings truth to my brain,but fiction brings truth to my soul.

By that, I mean that when we cloak reality in the mist of imagination, deeper truths about the nature of courage and love and sacrifice and curiosity and the heart and hope and will and desperation and compassion and adventure all begin to look a bit clearer. The ‘real’ nature of the world we live in makes these truth difficult to decipher. It’s like when the kids asked Aslan in “the Voyage of the Dawn Treader” why they were brought to this world of fantasy at all. He replied, “It is so that by knowing me here, you might know me a little better there.”

This is the purpose of ‘escape.’ Yes, fiction is an escape from reality, but that isn’t a bad thing, or even an unproductive thing. Sometimes—and better yet, frequently—a person must escape the world they know in order to understand the scope of things that are impossibly bigger that the world they live in. This is why Mr. Rogers, right in the middle of an otherwise very down-to-earth kids show, would invite us to hop into a magic trolley to visit the land of make-believe. Some things just couldn’t be adequately understood with all the ‘normal’ stuff getting in the way.

In this way, fiction is true after all. Not because the facts are accurate or the physics are plausible, but because the attitudes and emotions that affect the characters are common to us all. The impossible scenarios then begin to look faintly familiar. “I think I fought a dragon once.” We may begin to remember, “although my encounter with it didn’t fair nearly as well as the white knight’s. Maybe I should have read this first.”

Sometimes a story true because it happened, and sometimes it’s true because it happens.

Here are some thoughts about fiction from a couple of my favorite fiction authors. Enjoy:

Neil Gaiman (and sort of GK Chesterton): Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.

CS Lewis: The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat, otherwise dull to him, by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…by putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it.


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