Processing The Horrific Through Fiction

Scripture refers to itself as a mirror that shows a person his or her “natural face” (James 1:22-24). Today in my post at Spec Faith I wrote that a novel not showing characters as sinners would be suspect of deviating from God’s revealed truth because man sins against man.

That fact was brought home yet again this weekend as the details trickled in about the attack on Norwegian citizens by someone wishing to keep alive the fear and anger generated by terrorists. First a bomb exploded in Oslo killing at least seven people. Then an hour and a half later a gunman attacked a political youth camp, and nearly ninety more people lost their lives.

Of course tragedy doesn’t require multiple deaths. It might be the lose of one person we’re close to. It might be injury or hunger, slavery, abuse, or exploitation. There are all sorts of ways that man sins against man.

Fiction is one way we can process the horror of real life. Some people turn to it as an escape — the escape from prison J. R. R. Tolkien so famously talked about (see related thoughts in “Hope Or Truth”). Others turn to it for an explanation: why do people act in such horrific ways? Still others look to fiction to find a measure of justice they wish they found in the real world.

Of course writers often use fiction to work out the issues in their own lives with which they’re struggling. Anne Rice claimed her vampire novels were expressions of her search for spiritual truth. J. K. Rowling whose mother had recently died explored the theme of death in her Harry Potter novels.

Readers, I suspect, gravitate to the novels that speak to the issues of their lives, whether coming of age or coming of old age.

We often talk about characters we relate to. One commenter to Sally Apokedak’s article, “Harry Potter The Orphan” had this to say about Harry Potter:

He is particularly relatable to the generation that grew up with him (most are in their 20s now). He is the “everyman” for our generation. The story is one of choice and self-discovery. If you remember, the sorting hat wanted to put Harry in Slytherin, the house infamous for its output of dark wizards, but due to his protests the hat opted for Gryffindor, the house of heroes. It is that duality that allows us to relate to Harry. Everyone has their darker and lighter sides, and as we grow we choose who we will become. Ultimately, I think Harry’s popularity is a result of his relatability to what is currently a younger audience.

Clearly this commenter’s remarks show the propensity for readers to work out their own struggles through the struggles of the character to which they relate.

Hence, if a reader feels powerless, he gravitates to a character who starts out powerless only to discover he has more power than he imagined possible.

Which brings me to one final way in which readers process life through fiction: they see hope. A reader understands he won’t wake up one morning to learn that he has magical power. But he sees overcoming played out in actions, often actions that stem from nothing magical, but rather from qualities like courage and hard work, loyalty and faithfulness.

Seeing characters behave heroically helps a reader to believe that heroism is still something to be desired. The world may be filled with man sinning against man, but the inevitability of it is brought into question. And that generates hope and longing and pushes us to find real world examples of heroism, or more importantly, the Source of heroism.

Published in: on July 25, 2011 at 6:50 pm  Comments (2)  
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  1. I believe heroes still do exist brought to sharp relief by the dark world we live in. Fiction helps us find momentary escape in the characters we relate to and fall in love with. Harry Potter’s character was so endearing. I love those movies.


  2. I agree. Sometimes stories take us through darkness to find light.


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