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shrubbery's avatar

How can fiction lead us to truth?

Asked by shrubbery (9833 points ) October 13th, 2009

I know some people don’t read “fiction” because they believe it “isn’t true” so it isn’t worth reading. But is it really “not true”? Can we gain truth from reading it? Truth about the author, truth about ourselves, truth about others?

The Australian author David Malouf believes that what we experience through our imagination is every bit as real was what we experience directly in the every day. He believes that “the whole point of storytelling or drama may be just this: that by experiencing things in imagination, in apprehending and exploring them that way, we can save ourselves from having to live them out as fact.”

Do you agree with this? Or you do think that fiction is purely a mechanism for escape from the real world with no real standing in our every day lives?

Would you rather have your child learn about morals from a story book, learning to empathise with characters, or would you rather them having to experience a situation without that prior knowledge and have to figure it out then?

How can fiction lead us to truth?

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25 Answers

drdoombot's avatar

I think fiction is both a mechanism for escape and a way for us to experience things in our imagination and use it in real life. Some books manage to do both.

In a way, I think that there’s more truth in fiction than in any other kind of writing. Fiction can be a critical analysis of destiny, randomness, relationships, identity, life meaning and scores of other things. Writers are thinkers, and the good ones construct fiction in order to teach us truths about life. Humans are also emotional creatures, and a work of fiction can be used to appeal to the feelings of people and get an idea across more strongly. There is nearly an endless amount of fiction that reveals truths, with way too many to list here. But here are a few:

Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye
The problem of racial identity for black people in America
Grapes of Wrath
The plight of poor people and the devastation caused by the money manipulators at the top of the financial chain
Slaughterhouse-Five
The obsession humans have with their time on Earth, and how to live in a moment
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
The question of what makes us human, how do we find it and should we value it?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
An examination of power; how it is taken away from individuals and given to the collective. Also, what makes a person crazy?
To Kill a Mockingbird
About the negative effects of judging things by their appearances and not trying to understand them

Saturated_Brain's avatar

“We will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology”
– Noam Chomsky

I once wrote a whole essay on this. It depends on what type of truth are you looking for really.. The truth about the human condition? If so, then I think so, because it touches us in a way science or mathematics never can and teaches us things about ourselves and people.

P.S. Is this school-related?

mattbrowne's avatar

Fiction isn’t about the truth in a strict sense. It’s about a deeper understanding of the world.

MacBean's avatar

@mattbrowne—So fiction isn’t about fact. It is about truth.

augustlan's avatar

I could not agree more with the idea of seeing truth through fiction. That it can also be a pleasant escape from reality is just a bonus.

peedub's avatar

Sometimes an artist’s rendering of reality, for me at least, is closer to actual reality then, say, a photograph or other medium of ‘non-fiction.’ For example, a work of fiction by an author like Murakami may seem surreal, fantastic, and far-removed from reality, however, his rendering or expression of an abstract feeling like melancholy, for example, feels far more real than a nonfiction definition of the word. If I were trying to convey a real sense of what a given term or word means, I might defer to an artist’s work that allows one to live or experience the concept in question. Some ideas cannot be described in a totally rational or scientific way.

lifeflame's avatar

Agree, fiction can capture an emotional truth.
And sometimes the way to convey an emotional truth can be through non-naturalistic means.

Harp's avatar

Our tendency is to think of “truth” as an external reality to be apprehended by the mind, internalized, as if the mind is a passive receptacle to be filled with truth from the outside. But this view ignores the active participation of the mind in reality. Truth can no more be separated from mind than from the objective world.

While non-fiction is assumed to deemphasize the subjective and serve up objective information, fiction is not about information. Fiction shows us our own internal landscape. Instead of trucking new material into the brain, it attempts to strike resonances with the mind itself, revealing its internal structure.

It’s like standing next to my old upright piano here and singing a strong middle C. Because the piano already has a middle C string, it will begin to vibrate at that same frequency, and I can hear it singing along. If it were missing that string, it would be deaf to my note.

Fiction shows us our mind in the same way. To the extent that we already possess empathy, anger, passion, wisdom, etc., we can resonate to those frequencies when the author sounds the note. If that string is broken in us, our out of tune, it leaves us cold.

filmfann's avatar

Watching the 3rd season of Battlestar Galactica, which is science fiction, opened my eyes to some things that were going on in Iraq.

oratio's avatar

@MacBean So fiction isn’t about fact. It is about truth.

I liked that. Very spot on.

CMaz's avatar

I do not know about leading to the truth.
Maybe become technical enough to become believable.

But, fiction emotes free thought. Free thought allows us to see other perspectives.

mattbrowne's avatar

@MacBean – I said fiction isn’t about the truth in a strict sense. Let’s take historical fiction as an example, like ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett. There’s truth in the novel about certain historical figures like Empress Matilda. Likewise is the attempt to construct larger cathedrals a historical fact. Other characters and events, however, are purely a product of fiction. The events are not real, i.e. they are not “true”. They never happened. For novels with alternate histories this approach is actually a core feature. Let’s take ‘Voyage’ by Stephen Baxter. JFK was not assassinated. Nixon’s directive ending manned space exploration in favor of the Shuttle program never happened. Well, both of this is untrue as we all know. But Baxter wanted to explore the alternative. Why? Many reasons of course. One might be entertainment. Another might be about a deeper understanding of the world by exploring all kinds of alternatives. Getting a deeper understanding of things can help us find the truth. Therefore fiction plays an important role. This is why I created my own science fiction story. Makes sense?

Non fiction should be about the truth in a stricter sense or at least about the attempt of finding the truth.

Beta_Orionis's avatar

Interesting that no one has brought up the technological aspect. Without reading science fiction, some of our technology probably wouldn’t exist today. (Cell phones, nanotechnology, submarines, etc.) Someone had to imagine everything first.

Beside the introspective and personally applicable truths, I think much of fiction holds future-truth for innovators and designers. Although it’s purely speculative, it’s my feeling that you’d be hard-pressed to find an inventor, scientist, technological architect, etc. that hadn’t been inspired by some piece of science fiction at least once in his or her life.

wundayatta's avatar

I believe there is more truth in fiction than in non-fiction. Truth is not about reality—as in what is real and what is not. On that basis, non-fiction contains truth and fictions contains little or no truth.

Truth is about how things work in life. Usually these lessons get distilled into archetypal stories that demonstrate relationships that occur over and over again. Myths are a special kind of fiction that stands the test of time—centuries or even millenniums.

It is for this reason that the myth of God is so powerful. It contains truths that people have found to be true for millenniums. Other myths and “story tales” have lasted for centuries. They last because they tell stories that ring true in our lives or in our psyches. We are all Cinderella—lost and unloved, yet seeking; desiring love to complete our lives. We all wish for that completion, even if it is not completion (this is partially hyperbole, but you get the idea).

Fiction contains distillations of truths about relationships and meaning and the way the world works. Fiction also contains reality in it. I have learned much of what I know about physics from science fiction. Writers have to research works of fantasy just as much as they research non-fictional works. Most writers place a premium on credibility. They can not get readers to suspend disbelief without credibility.

As @drdoombot, showed us, fantasy (science fiction is a subgenre of fantasy) also allows us to speak about current events. Stories about meeting with aliens are about meeting with strange people or creatures. They can be about racism or bad wars or about the nature of metaphors for information. They can be about any issue that concerns the writer. If the story is about issues that also concern readers, and it has interesting things to say about these issues, then it is more likely to become a best seller.

I have always preferred fiction, perhaps because fiction sees deeper into the world. Non-fiction often bores me, because, so often, it just describes things (far to often in a boring way), instead of delving into the meaning of things. Fiction also forces writers to tell stories and stories are how we convey learning more effectively. We intuitively understand action and and conflict and purpose and journeys. Mere description does not provide that for us, and is less interesting because of it.

As always, there are exceptions to the above. Many people prefer non-fiction to fiction. They require “reality” in order to get into something. They don’t see the point of fiction. Maybe stories even bore them. For me, however, stories contain truths that can not appear in non-fiction, unless that non-fiction takes the form of a story.

Syger's avatar

Most truths are birthed from ‘fiction.’

seventeen123's avatar

Fiction is used in the way each reader chooses to use it. It can be a complete escape from the world as well as it can be a connection to the world. It all depends on the reader. Either way, much can be learned from it. Writing skills, reading skills, vocab skills, and many others can be built from fantasy & there’s a lot of truth in it!

Thammuz's avatar

Concepts and reasoning that work under certain premises can be extrapolted and adapted to other premises. In that instance there really is no fiction.

Doesn’t matter if the book is a fantasy or a sci-fi, if the portrayal of human behaviour is even marginally realistic what you get from it can be put to use in real life.

proXXi's avatar

By making the writings of Ayn Rand required reading in schools.

mattbrowne's avatar

@proXXi – You an Ayn Rand fan? I think she’s a very dubious person.

Carbonproduct's avatar

By displaying and ultimatley disqualifying the variables that make the equation incorrect.

carolinasummers's avatar

Fiction can tell the truth in a non-threatening way. People can relate to the plots and characters without feeling like they are being personally singled out for a lecture.

Pandora's avatar

What @carolinasummers said.
Star Trek was all about morality and Kirk always getting lucky.

tearsxsolitude's avatar

I believe that fiction is very beneficial to our growth. I’m only 17, but I read all the fricking time because it makes me think more. It makes you understand different point of views and it exposes you to things in life that you may not have otherwise been aware of. What I’m trying to say is that fiction exposes truths about people and things in life that our own experiences don’t show us.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from fiction, truth from diction. Fiction does more to show the truth on human feeling, thoughts, ideals, and perceptions than anything else. The writer of the fiction or the creator of the movie that is fiction does what I do as an artist with words instead of a brush. I can go to a wall and paint a sunset beach with breaking waves over the rocks and swaying palm trees. If I render it right when you see it your eye will tell you that is what you see even though logically you know it is just a flat wall. But if done right you will almost believe you can reach in there especially when seen at a distance. I manipulate color and form to get you the viewer to see something that is not really there as being there.

No matter what the fiction is it has deep roots in reality, unless you have a big, huge budget like Avatar. The characters for the most part conform and obey the laws of physics. They speak a language the water or the reader can understand. They deal with rain, or snow, and other atmospheric conditions. The heart of the truth that fiction brings is how we relate to the characters. Take those movies like ”Assassins”, ”The Professional”, ”Mr. And Mrs. Smith”, Road to Perdition”*, ”Gross Point Blank”, etc where the main hero character is an assassin, basically a paid killer. People you see on America’s Most Wanted and root that they catch the slimy $&@(*>. But in those films you have empathy for them (the fictional killer) you’d never have for a real killer. One could ask why is that? Is it because of the fictional back story you gain more of a liking to the killers in a way watching one on the evening news could never do for you? How we accept and perceive certain types of people can be brought forth through fiction where the simple facts in Newsweek or the evening news could never do. The truth that fiction brought out is that one doesn’t see all hitmen as mere criminals if you can tell his/her story.

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