When I was about ten or eleven years old, my grandmother came to spend a few days with us. This was not particularly unusual – my grandparents were very close to us and lived only about forty minutes away – but usually we went to them instead of my grandmother coming to us. I remember she knocked on my bedroom door (I was allowed to have it closed because I was “the writer”) and when she saw me, she was worried and anxious. “What’s wrong, darling?” she asked. “Nothing,” I answered, and then I explained, “It’s just that Charlie died.” Charlie was the ne’er-do-well brother in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Eight Cousins. She smiled in complete understanding, because of course it wasn’t unusual at all in my family for someone to weep over the fate of a fictional character.
The goal of every good writer is to create such a perfect suspension of disbelief that his characters are living beings to the reader. The reader becomes emotionally invested in the characters and their fates, rooting for their successes, cheering them on through their failures, and weeping when they die. If you think about some of those very powerful moments in fiction, starting when you are young – the seeming deaths of Gandalf and Aslan; the death of Beth in Little Women; the return home of the three missing house pets in The Incredible Journey; the loss of Rue in The Hunger Games – they set up your response to other scenes as you become older: Sydney Carton mounting the steps of the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities, the moment in The Wrath of Khan when Spock says, through the glass, “I am, and shall ever be, your friend.” And not just sad moments, either. I remember the harrowing sequence of events on that cold, rainy road as Harriette Arnow’s mother carried the baby Amos, dying of diphtheria, on the mule. I can see it so clearly, even though I last read The Dollmaker maybe twenty years ago. The pleading of the mother in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” And cheering on, along with everyone else in the audience of The Help, at that fateful serving of pie.
I’m the member of maybe a dozen Star Trek groups online. And I can’t tell you how many times some fan of the Abrams “reboot” of Star Trek has said, when I’ve pointed out the deliberate destruction of the iconic characters, and the stupidity of the plotholes, and the deliberate dumbing down of the accepted parameters of the world building in the Star Trek universe, “Hey, it’s just fiction. Who cares?”
I care, damn it. Writers care. We spend a year, or two years, or five years, or fifty years, carefully creating a world, building it so it makes sense, imbuing the characters with empathy and reality, establishing a credible plot, using everything in our bag of tricks to create that all important level of suspension of disbelief which will bring our readers back time and time again.
Readers care, because otherwise, why would they bother to go to the library, or the bookstore, and open a physical book? Why would they establish their account on Kindle, or Goodreads, or Shebooks, or whichever platform they use, and download another person’s book? Why would they spend hours and hours reading, immersing themselves in that world, falling in love with those characters, returning to them time and time again?
Movie goers, and theatre goers, and opera lovers, and balletomanes, and all the others who enjoy film and live theatre care. Because why else would they invest time and money in tickets, and the dinners out, and the babysitters, and the plane tickets to spend two hours and twenty minutes in a darkened building in rapt attention as something flickers across a lit screen or someone wends his way across a spotlit stage? In 2013 I drove from my home in Pensacola, Florida back to Brooklyn to see Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen in “Waiting for Godot” at the Cort Theatre – and it was definitely worth the drive.
Don’t say, “It’s just fiction.” Can you calculate the influence of The Iliad or The Odyssey in terms of “it’s just fiction”? Of “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story” and all the other tales of prejudice and bigotry leading to the deaths of star-crossed lovers? Of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Go Tell It on the Mountain or any other novel or play that has demanded that we reexamine false cultural norms and grow as human beings?
Because great fiction drags us and pulls us and torments us and coaxes us and cajoles us into changing our minds, and our lives, and our dreams, and our fears. It eases our weariness, and makes us laugh, and empathizes with us, and befriends us, and promises us hope in an uncertain world.
It’s not “just fiction.”