In the old English language, the word for “story” was the word “spell.” Therefore, to “tell a story” meant to “cast a spell.” Anyone who’s struggled to put down a good book knows what it feels like under this spell. Obviously this isn’t a literal spell, but the word paints a clear picture of the power of a good story.
With this power comes great responsibility. Storytellers serve as guides to lead their readers down a path of revelation and self-discovery – because of this, it matters a great deal how we present reality. We can write a fictional story about a pink unicorn named Harold, but that doesn’t mean truth goes out the window.
Pink unicorns don’t really exist, but when Harold experiences heartache and rejection, we as readers understand the pain he sits in. We don’t relate to Harold because we are pink unicorns; we relate to him because we know heartache and rejection. This exercise in empathy makes a story compelling!
We either relate directly to a character because of our own experience, or we relate indirectly as we imagine life in their shoes. This “in their shoes” is where our responsibility lies – we must remain vigilant about our portrayal of reality as we put our readers in other people’s shoes.
If we prove careless about this, we can mislead our readers and even cause them great harm. For example, if we write a fictional story where a relationship gets built on only feelings of butterflies, and where “happily ever after” means those butterflies never go away, we are lying about the nature of reality.
Not only that, we rob people of the truth of what makes a relationship beautiful. Love is patient, and love is kind – it is more about what we give rather than what we receive (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-13). If we set the false expectation of what love really is – what happens to our reader when the butterflies fly away from their own relationships?
Yes, our stories can have fantastical creatures, technological gizmos, and magic. Those tools help tell the truth. But we must never compromise the truth itself. We must always be honest about the nature of life, our hearts, and the human condition – even if it’s a story about a pink unicorn named Harold.
“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” – E.B. White