When I was in secondary school, my closest friends all knew that on their birthdays, instead of a present, they would receive a story from me. The recipient usually starred as the main character, and would get to have exciting adventures before saving the day and defeating the villain.
At that age, we all drew strength and hope from stories, in the form of the books, films and TV shows we loved. In these characters we saw traits we admired, and in these other worlds we saw the possibility of a life more exciting than our typical teenage existence.
Looking back, I know stories have had a big impact on my life, and I’m certain they have a lot of power in wider society too.
- Stories show you how things could be better. In imaginary worlds, we find the inspiration to improve this world.
- Stories show you how things could be worse. Have you ever thought ‘well, this is bad, but it’s not Hunger Games bad yet’? Sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded to be thankful of all that’s right with the world.
- Stories help us understand each other better. A great example of this is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It’s a popular book that has allowed many readers to step inside the world of a boy with autism. Reading about people different to ourselves develops empathy and compassion for us to apply in our interactions with real people.
- Stories give us a common point of reference. Recently a co-worker was trying to describe someone with a complicated personality that didn’t reflect first impressions. Eventually he said, ‘he’s quite a lot like Faramir’! And right there, Tolkien had given us a way to communicate a set of traits that we could both bring to mind. This one only really works if everyone present knows the story in question, of course, which is why obscure movie references either win you friends or fall flat, depending on the company present.
- Stories help us to make sense of the real world. This is, in my opinion, the most important function of stories. Big life experiences like love and death get explored in the stories we tell, and sometimes it is a book that helps us process what is happening around us. When I was fifteen, the film Big Fish helped me emotionally respond to bereavement through the experiences of the characters.
- Stories can offer an escape from the real world. I write this one tentatively, as this is something that I believe can be either good or bad. T.S.Eliot wrote that ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’ and diving into a good book at the end of a tough day can help me get a break from the stress. But, to quote Albus Dumbledore, ‘it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live’. Escapism is never a long-term solution to our problems.
Do you think stories do more harm or good? Is there a particular story that has had a profound impact on your life?