I went to an enjoyable authors’ meeting in Manchester recently. We heard two interesting speakers, and one of them cut to the very basis of our work as authors: why do we tell (or write) stories? I found it extremely thought-provoking…and I’m still thinking about it.
To start with, the speaker’s approach was a touch academic for my taste. He talked about the story-telling urge in very primitive humans, “evolutionary psychology”. Humans are (as far as we know) the only creatures that make up stories. Why do we do it? Apparently there’s a debate between those who think people developed their imaginations because it was beneficial for survival. (“Once upon a time a hunter hid near a water-hole, and every evening the animals came down to drink there, so he never went hungry…”) and others who believe the story-telling impulse was inbuilt in human’ psyches even as they started to talk: (“Once upon a time I was bored living in my tree, and I saw a nice grassy plain below full of gazelles, so I thought hey, what would it be like to live there?”)
OK, those examples are mine and they’re doubtless over-simple, so if any evolutionary psychologists are reading this, please feel free to correct me…on condition your correction is in plain English, please!
Meanwhile, back to the present. Why do we tell or write stories now?
Among the interesting reasons that came up, both in the hall and afterwards over tea, were two that seemed right to me. First, to try and impose some sort of order on a chaotic or hostile world, to explain things we are scared of or can’t understand; second, to express or explore strong emotions in fiction that people are uncomfortable with in the real world.
Oddly enough, I don’t think anyone mentioned one important motive, shared I’m sure by cave-men and keyboard-bashers. We want to entertain. I suppose it’s so obvious that nobody felt it worth raising, but most fiction is designed first and foremost to entertain, whether to amuse or terrify or educate.
That’s an important motive for me. I hope to transport readers back to Roman Britain, bring them a picture of life in a quite different time and place. I’m delighted when readers find the same fascination I feel in that period, because it means they’ve enjoyed the experience I’ve offered them…they found it entertaining.
Mind you, that isn’t all. I want justice to be done in my mysteries, a happy ending, good winning over evil however hard the struggle. That’s part of imposing order on a chaotic world I think.
Incidentally nobody suggested people might write fiction to make pots of money. I presume they anticipated gales of laughter at such an extraordinary idea, despite shining examples of authors like Frederick Forsyth, who began his writing career because he needed cash and succeeded brilliantly both as a writer and a money-maker. For most of us, becoming rich from authorship is a dream, or do I mean a fantasy?
Yet we still write and tell stories, and people still read and listen. And we still think about why.
I’ll have an extra ration of thinking time soon – I’m going briefly into hospital for more surgery on the elbow I broke last year, which still isn’t fully healed. I’ll be in plaster for a bit, and don’t know how soon I’ll be able to post here again…as soon as ever I can, you can be sure of that. But plastered or not (so to speak!) I can still think.