“It’s Just a Story”: We Underestimate the Power of Literature

When we open a fiction book, it’s purely for the sake of escapism. There’s nothing to learn from these stories and nothing that should make us think. People should stop politicising stories because acting like they have deeper meanings is pointless, right?

Wrong.

I’ve had people tell me these sort of things frequently since I became a writer on Episode Interactive. That’s probably because I spend way too much of my time arguing with people on the forums about diversity standards, tasteful stories, and representation. I often discuss the importance of creating positive portrayals of certain sensitive scenarios, especially on an app aimed at such a young audience. When I try to tackle these areas of improvement, I am met with a great deal of push-back. People will completely shut down, refusing to engage with difficult topics and have a proper debate because they’re “just stories”. That makes me cringe really hard at my screen. I wish that these people would have a wake-up call. Good stories aren’t just about writing some words on a page and creating pretty pictures in our heads. No writer should ignore the power that their story can have over their readers. Yes, Episode does have the potential to generate some amazing stories and writers are powerful – and, as you probably already know, that means responsibility, folks!

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R.R. Martin

So, my wonderfully inquisitive-minded friend, I hear you ask: “Why can’t I just write whatever the hell I want to write? Why do I have to think about the implications that my story may have?” Well, before I answer you, I have to tell you that those are some excellent questions! I guess the most important thing to cover first is the impact of art in general on the mind. This involves delving into the worlds of two of my biggest loves: literature and history. Lucky you.

You see, stories have been both pushed out and hid away for the same reason throughout history. Before you run away screaming “I wasn’t in this for a history essay”, give me a chance to convince you that it is important. Nazi Germany used anti-Jewish propaganda to turn the ‘Aryan’ German population against their Jewish friends and neighbours. The Americans had the whole ‘Red Scare’ in which they pumped out anti-Communist cartoons and other forms of propaganda to scare the masses. Catholics over the world protested the production of the second film in the His Dark Materials trilogy (better known as The Golden Compass). In fact, as a practising, devout and proud Catholic, I have to say with a little disdain that the Catholic Church has a history of trying (and usually succeeding) to censor what they don’t want to hear. His Dark Materials actually does cover that in length. And why are people so obsessed with controlling the art that people produce? Are they going crazy over the little things? Well, no. Our whole world is covered in different types of art: paintings, plays, operas, books, films, cartoons, anime, tv shows… They really do affect how we think and act. Gandhi expressed, in his assessment of the Bible, the power that art can have more eloquently than I ever could:

“You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.” – Mahatma Gandhi

When you pick up a book, you don’t just read it, unless you’re an extremely passive reader. You engage with it. You choose characters you like and dislike, you get emotional over elements of the story, laugh and have an opinion about it by the end – whether good or bad. So does that mean that you’re your own boss and that a writer’s intentions have no part to play? Yes and no. It is probably true that you’ll find out a lot more about yourself from reading a fantasy story than you will about the writer since we all infuse our own thoughts and experiences into the story to understand it better. We need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to truly empathise with them, so it is not uncommon to feel like you are the protagonist or at least a very close and intimate friend. That’s how we get emotional over alien circumstances! The best characters are the ones who, no matter how bizarre their story, seem realistic and understandable motivations. Basically, we need to believe that we, or at least someone plausible, would act the same way that Harry Potter did upon finding out he was a wizard to consider that chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone a good one. The true trick to good fantasy and sci-fi is being able to create believable characters in unbelievable worlds.

So if we are empathising with these characters, putting ourselves in their shoes, watching their actions with a critical eye, crying in all the right parts and just generally actually taking in what we are reading, doesn’t it then follow that we are being affected by the story in one way or another? How can we actually take in a book and have all the human reactions we are supposed to have if we aren’t actually processing the information and engaging with it? We aren’t robots… yet. It’s impossible to get a proper understanding of literature, or any other art form for that matter, if we aren’t doing this. A story isn’t just a set of facts. Even the way we imagine the scene a writer has described is incredibly personal and biased.

“Ah!” I hear you shout, thoroughly elated that you believe you’ve caught me off guard with this one, “But if we’re completely in control of how we engage with these different stories, surely it’s not a writer’s responsibility to positively represent anything! It’s our job to positively receive it!” Nice one! If only it were as simple as that, hey? You see, as much as our thoughts are our own and we are the bosses of our own heads, it is very difficult for the average Joe to love a character if the author has made a conscious effort to make us hate them. We are human, after all, and humans at large do share a lot of the same reactions to certain stimuli. What I mean by that is that generally, we do find similar things creepy or cute. It’s easy for a writer, broadly speaking, to create characters that the vast majority of their readers will like or appreciate (if for their own reasons and to varying degrees). So, if a writer of a “bad boy” story spends five minutes of Episode time telling us how hot the love interest is and how sensitive and complex he is deep, deep down below all the abusive behaviour, some part of a lot of us (usually the part that finds it easy to relate to the protagonist) will find us also making excuses for him and loving him despite his poor treatment of our main girl.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King

While we are busy engaging with the story and getting emotionally attached to the characters as we are supposed to, we may find ourselves falling into mindsets which aren’t necessarily good for us. By the end of the story, if the writer has managed to convince us that the bad boy is actually a sweetheart somewhere in his black, black heart, we could accidentally start to think about how amazingly romantic this abusive relationship was and how we would love to have a boyfriend just like the protagonist’s poor excuse for a lover. Basically, we are in control of our own mind, but we can be swayed and convinced if the argument appears to be a good one – and a long story is a perfect opportunity to wear us down, lower our guards, and then deliver the toxic blow which leads to romanticising abuse or fetishising homosexuality. Maybe we’d be safe for one or two stories, but what about if that becomes the norm, or someone convinces us when we’re at a young age and still figuring out who we are and what we believe in? See the problem? Episode Interactive is full of young people just at that perfect age: ready to ripen. Plus, it is packed with those stories just itching to begin that slow sanding process to make us think toxicity is normal.

Yes, I am very aware that the idea of toppling positive attitudes doesn’t even cross the mind of most of the writers on Episode. I’d be delusional if I thought that. It’s all innocent – all in good jest. Maybe it makes it worse, though, that toxicity has become so rife in the Episode community that we don’t even notice when our stories are full of it. That’s the real source of this problem, isn’t it? We’ve trivialised the issue of bad messages to the point where we can actually claim that Episode stories are just stories. What does that even mean?

So maybe it’s time for us to act – to not limit ourselves in terms of what we write about, but rather reconsider how we touch upon difficult and controversial issues. We should think about what we’re saying and how we say it – what we glorify, prioritise and call attention to in our stories. It’s not so much the plot that is the issue in most of these stories as it is how it is handled. What do you want your story to say about who you are and what you stand for? It is, after all, our responsibility as writers to make sure that we are the positive change that we want to see in the world. That can be difficult, but we need to make an effort and not try to pretend we don’t influence people at all. Before you hit “publish” on that story, just take a moment to think about the power at your fingertips and ask yourself how you want to use it.

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