Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Power of Fiction

Okay, as an author of fiction you know that it’s just plain fun to invent people, places, and incidents out of your imagination. It’s also rewarding to receive feedback from readers who have enjoyed them. But have you ever considered the potential power of fiction?

Examples from earlier centuries
In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer penned his Canterbury Tales. The framework for this collection of short stories is a fictional journey of a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral, and the travelers tell tales to entertain one another. What’s special is that, unlike contemporaries, Chaucer wrote in Middle English. Until then, literature in England was written in Latin or French. By daring to be different, Chaucer widened the scope of his audience and set the new standard language for literature.

In the 1800s, Charles Dickens wrote novels such as Oliver Twist. In so doing, he grabbed readers’ attention and forced them to consider the plight of London’s orphan population, many of whom worked basically as slaves in workhouses or were recruited into lives of crime. When readers vicariously experienced such outrages through the power of fiction, they demanded changes! New laws to protect orphans resulted.

Also in the 1800s, Harriet Beecher Stowe understood that she couldn’t make a dent in the institution of slavery simply by crusading against it. But when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she yanked readers from their cozy homes and plopped them into the same cruel circumstances that a slave might endure—and created a groundswell of anger against such a system.

Examples from sci-fi
During WW II, probably nobody could have imagined that one U.S. bomber pilot stood much chance of changing the future. But that’s what Gene Roddenberry accomplished—not by dropping bombs, but by the power of the fiction he developed years later. Martin Cooper, the inventor of cell phones, received his inspiration by watching the crew of Roddenberry’s USS Enterprise talking on communicators. In the 1980s, Steve Perlman saw computers on the Enterprise being used to play music, which was impossible at the time. Motivated to try it, his experiments led to QuickTime, which led to MP3 music, and eventually to iPods. Roddenberry couldn’t invent all those things, but his screenplays—just like the novels of Jules Verne—sparked the imaginations of people who could.

Our opportunity
In our own time, books such as the Left Behind series have opened the spiritual eyes of many readers who had no interest in God, Jesus, or church. Such people were interested stories, in adventures, but not in sermons. Fellow Christian writer, if you use your knack for writing just to earn money, that’s okay. But if God has given you a talent for hammering out stories that grip readers’ eyeballs and shape their thoughts, then you hold the key to a power greater than that of armies and bombs. Let’s use the power of fiction for our Lord.

Now let’s share. Which works of fiction have moved or inspired you? Or which authors changed the way you think about something?

Rick Barry


  1. Henry Morton Robinson wrote the Cardinal pubbed by Simon & Schuster in 1950. The priest who rises in power within the church has to make a horrendous choice when his beloved sister is in childbirth. He said that if you kill the baby to save the mother it is murder, but if in the course of birthing, the mother dies that is God's will. Wow! I was only eleven but that had a tremendous impact on me!

    Good post, Rick. I'm interested to see others responses.

  2. Some forget that Jesus Himself used fiction to change the world. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Ten Virgins--all were fictional characters. So much for the idea that writing fiction is a waste of time and artistry!

  3. As a young girl, Catherine Marshall's CHRISTY had a huge impact on my life. I wanted to grow up and be a missionary to the people of the mountains. I sort of got my desire as I married a pastor and moved to Wabash, County, Indiana, where there are a lot of Appalachian immigrants in our church! Books, fiction and non, do change you. There are lines in books that I read as a child and remember to this day.

    Sometimes after I read a book, I ponder on one small truth the author may not have realized they brought out.

    I love books that change me or touch me deeply. Sometimes, I do want to read simply to be entertained. But often, if a book hasn't made me think, I don't consider it a good one, and not worthy of my time.

  4. In the summer after 6th grade, I was browsing a bookstore. One unique cover caught my attention, so I picked it up. Behind me a young man of about college age said, "Oh, you're going to read the trilogy?" and kept walking. Trilogy? I had no idea what he meant, but based on his enthusiasm I bought 3 paperbacks titled The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's ability to fabricate an entirely new universe in minute detail and to lead me into an adventure such as I'd never imagined never left me. Not until long afterward did I learn that he was one of a couple friends who led C.S. Lewis to the Lord.