Fiction is Not Your Life Coach

No one can deny the allure of fiction. Most people enjoying escaping into other world’s and people’s lives. Whether you’re a fan of Doctor Who or Grey’s Anatomy, everyone gets their fictional fix in some way. People use it for escape and for entertainment. But more and more lately I’ve noticed fiction being used as a scapegoat for things happening out in the real world, especially when it comes to teenagers. Is that fair though? Does fiction have a social responsibility?

I remember a couple years ago, sitting in a college Lit class and having a discussion about a book my class was studying. My teacher voiced an opinion that has stuck with me since I heard it: Fiction does not have responsibility. When a writer is telling a story, through whatever kind of medium, they are not trying to tell people how they should live their lives. Honestly, it was a thought that never occurred to me before. The thought changed the way I consume fiction and the way I encourage others to consume it as well.

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I see this debate come up often because I am a massive fan of YA Lit. Of course people are going to be opinionated over the things that teenagers read and watch. As they should. I remember how impressionable I was as a teenager. However I notice I don’t see these arguments happening in regards to any “adult” oriented types of fiction. No one accuses the writers on Game of Thrones for condoning things like “abuse” the way they do on shows like The Vampire Diaires. In one situation, we can watch the story unfold and if something bad happens we can back away and say “wow, that’s messed up” but in the latter, something similar occurs, and audience members bust out their pitchforks and begin accusing show writers of condoning bad behavior. I doubt that the writers’ room is filled with people making choices to write situations to glorify any type of violent behavior, their jobs are to tell a story about a specific group of characters and situations. Not to give life advice via the fictional things they create.

I use these two shows because I am a fan of both and I know them well. People may bulk and say “well one is meant for adults and the other for teenagers…impressionable minds KATIE!” Well if that is the argument  I put this thought to my readers: Is it not the responsibility of parents, teachers, etc. to teach these impressionable minds to be discerning and to break through surfaces to form their own opinions? Perhaps the responsibility lies not with the creators and writers of these stories when it comes to teens, but with those who are responsible for the teenagers who read and watch this stuff.

As a writer and avid reader, I might have a skewed interpretation of the fictional things I consume. But I always come back to what my teacher told me in that Lit class. Writers are not trying to tell people how to live their lives. They are telling a story, about a group of characters made up in their heads. Sometimes those characters do good things and sometimes they do bad. Critics always cite Bella Swan as being a horrible role model for teenage girls with the way she caves in on herself after she is deserted by the love of her life…but I doubt that Stephanie Meyer’s point in writing her character that way was to tell heartbroken girls that they should just give up. Works of fiction, such as Twilight, are not mean to substitute for teaching teenagers (or people in general) how to react to the world around them. Writer’s, for the most part, do not share the opinions of their characters.

Fiction should always be separated from reality. It should never be mistaken for fact. Good readers and watchers should be able to make the distinction. It’s probably easier to do when reading books that take place in 1872 or watching shows that involve time travel or made up worlds. Fiction is fiction. It romanticizes, it sensationalizes, its supposed to be dangerous and take risks. We can find entertainment, escape, and inspiration within the stories, but we should never, ever use it as a handbook for our lives.

It’s a multi-leveled argument I’m sure and their are always exceptions to the rule. Feel free to continue the discussion in the comments 🙂

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p.s. Apologies for a super opinion-y post. I’ve been getting a lot of questions on my fangirl tumblr about this subject and reading many different  opinions and just wanted to address the topic myself.

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3 thoughts on “Fiction is Not Your Life Coach

  1. I think children’s (and some YA) literature is a place for readers to “try on” feelings. They get to experience emotions, death, or trama, through a character’s view rather than living the experience.

    However, I also think we don’t give teens enough credit. Sherman Alexie wrote an amazing article about censorship and lived experience– sometimes, teens have experienced those dark events long before reading about them. They need the mirror of their own life to help sort out feelings and learn how to cope. I think literature can definitely serve as a tool to help readers feel less alone– and in a sense, teach them ways of acting and consequences for actions.

    • I totally agree about “trying on” different experiences. And I also agree about not giving teens credit. But censors and critics are always looking for something to blame when it comes to melodramatic teens and it seems like the increased popularization of YA lit as become the new scapegoat. After writing that post, I kept thinking about how if Romeo & Juliet was published in 2013, how parents would be up in arms about a story in which two teenager lovers kill themselves. Yet R&J taught in high schools all over the country and no one bats an eye haha

      I’ll have to try to look up the article by Sherman Alexie, I read people citing his opinions on different subjects all the time.

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