Why They Walk Together

Fiction is a strange thing.

My Facebook and Twitter feeds today are blowing up with Star Wars fans calling out, “May the 4th be with you!”.  Saturday, it was Harry Potter fans and memorial posts for the Battle of Hogwarts.  Later this month, Terry Pratchett fans will be wearing lilac in remembrance of the People’s Revolution on the Glorious 25th of May.

Terry Pratchett fans have something grounded in reality to mourn this year, given the author’s passing (the first time I’ve ever cried at a celebrity death).  But the others, not so much.  Why say RIP for a person who never existed? Why proclaim your love of events that never happened?

Basically, why does fiction matter so much?


I’ve written before about the benefits of reading…

…both to your children, and for your own good.  That’s not quite what I’m getting at here.  No matter how much you’re drawn into a story, the sense of “real versus false” is still very much present.  So why do we get so emotionally invested in things that never happened, people who never existed?

There are a few answers to this.


The psychological answer:


When we read, we practice empathy.  After all, we’re presented with the same information as when we make a friend, right?  We’re exposed to periodic developments in someone’s personal life, whether those developments are intimate (think My Sister’s Keeper) or global (The Lord of the Rings).  Good characterization makes for interesting friends.  There’s a reason readers are more empathetic.


The personal answer: 


When I was a kid, I had a bit of an “outcast syndrome”: it didn’t matter how many friends I had, or how fantastic they were, I always felt a little lonely.  It probably didn’t help that I lost one of my best friends to a serious medical condition when I was young, but if I’m honest the problem started a while before that.

Reading helped with that.

When I felt distant from my real-life friends, I always had some waiting for me– a whole world, full of detectives and magic and a thousand new planets that I could explore at any given moment.  I know so many readers who feel the same way: when things were bad, books let us experience things that were better.

And hey, that empathy thing gave us the tools to figure out how to handle the real world, too.


And the practical answer: sometimes reality and fiction get a little tangled up.

I’m not sure how often it comes up in this blog, but I’m a substitute teacher.   I teach mostly in elementary schools, which means I’ve spent a good amount of time sitting in on library lessons.  You know, where the librarian stands up and explains the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

It is surprising how many kids raise their hands and ask about a book that blurs the line.

Historical fiction is always the hard one: yes, it’s fiction, it didn’t happen… but, well, that is what life was like in [insert time period here]. When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of a book series called The Royal Diaries: books written from the perspective of princesses throughout history.  (Sounds pretty Disney, but the Cleopatra one involved her being presented with the head of her older sister on a silver platter, and the Anastasia one  adding another title to the list of What-Were-My-Parents-Thinking.)

The Royal Diaries books were written about real people, kept as close to history as they possibly could be.  Each book had a long bibliography at the end, as well as a section of nonfiction notes that I would pore over for hours.  They were fiction: they were not actual diaries written by the actual girls.  But they had so many nonfiction elements to them that they served the purpose of reading a nonfiction book.  I learned a great deal about their lives in a format that, as a child, interested me.

Fiction matters to us because we feel what we’re learning.  We experience it.

Growing up a little, we have authors like Tim O’Brien, who writes war stories.  The Things They Carried was my first introduction to a blurred line between fantasy and reality.  The story contains the legends of the battlefield: a woman who comes out to visit her boyfriend and ends up stalking the jungles of Vietnam with a necklace of human tongues, the friend whose body sank in the muck of the battlefield.  O’Brien tells us himself that these stories aren’t completely true, telling us the story of the girlfriend second and (at the end) fourth-hand.  He tells the story of a man he shot in the war– and then casts doubt on its reality.

But O’Brien did go to war.  That’s true.  Much of the story is true, it seems: but he tells us outright that we need to choose what to believe.

Fiction matters because it can convey information in ways beyond nonfiction: the chaos and uncertainty of war comes through pretty clearly.

Another example hits a bit closer to home.

I mentioned earlier in this article that Terry Pratchett passed away this month.  His battle with Alzheimer’s was fairly public (and included an incredibly moving documentary about his interest in assisted suicide), and his series of novels about Discworld were so involved, fascinating, and frankly relevant that his fans (myself included) invested stunning percentages of their lives into the books.  His novels, true to the satirical genre, explored a multitude of issues including (but not limited to) religion, atheism, gender equality, the good and bad military, fanaticism, cross-dressing, Shakespeare, duty, politics, economics, tyrants, democracy, tourism, technology, civil rights…

…And death.  Death himself is actually a reoccurring character in the novels.  He TALKS IN ALL CAPITALS and has an affinity for kittens.  Through the novels, Death has gotten into a number of weird shenanigans. He took on an apprentice once.  Once he quit.  He adopted a daughter and had to deal with her dating.  Death appears in all of the novels, and is a highly familiar character to anyone who reads the novels.

This was Sir Terry Pratchett’s final story.

Fiction, of course.  The Death that lives in Discworld is a fictional character.  We know so much about the character: his history, what he loves, what he hates, his family, his friends, his

But Pratchett’s death was very much a real thing.

When examined, the line between fiction and reality is pretty easy to draw here– but it’s still blurred.  The fiction of Pratchett’s last words plays with the emotion of the truth.   We know Sir Terry; we know Death.   And true, most stories don’t have the depth of Pratchett’s last words, but most (if not all) good fiction does the exact same thing.

Fiction matters to us because it is always grounded on a truth we can relate to, be it death, war, or princesses.


One thought on “Why They Walk Together

  1. Oh, I know exactly how you feel.
    Being a person that has read over 7,000 books and has a photographic memory, I remember every single book character I’ve ever “run into.” So I have a lot of friends. In books. AND I AGREE WITH EVERYTHING YOU SAY HERE! MWAHAHAHAHA! Sorry. Rambling. My uncle just died. But I love this post. I emailed it to my BFF, and she spent last night reading everything on your blog. Ms. Alex, you make very good points.

    Lots O’ love,

    Wasabi (It’s my nickname. :))


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