On the Allure of Narrative

In this week's newsletter, Lara Machado, our Social Media Editor, reflects on how fictional narratives, with their intense emotional impact and focused storytelling, often elicit stronger reactions and social change than real-life events.

Most of us have probably cried at the cinema or felt angered by a character’s poor decisions. If I told you that Bambi always moves me to tears, you wouldn’t think my reaction was particularly strange. But why do I cry at the death of a fictional deer’s fictional mother if I know all the time that I am watching a fiction? Why is it that so often we are moved to tears by the plights of imaginary people while the headlines on the news provoke little more than a passing sadness, guilt or anger?

In 1999, a Belgian-French production entitled ‘Rosetta’ was released, telling the story of a seventeen-year old girl living with her alcoholic mother in a caravan. The titular character desperately tries to find a job to escape her miserable life, but finds it impossible to break the cycles of poverty and abuse in which she finds herself trapped. The film was such a huge critical success and had an impact so powerful on audiences, that it sped up the approval of a new law, known as the Rosetta Law in Belgium, which both prevented employers from paying teenage workers below the minimum wage, and established a 3% minimum of young employees in any staff of more than 50 people. Situations like those of Rosetta have always existed out in the open, but it wasn’t until audiences watched the suffering of a fictional character that change was precipitated. Rosetta is just one example; The Snake Pit (1948) provoked changes to the conditions of mental asylums in the US, The Grapes of Wrath led Eleanor Roosevelt to campaign for congressional hearings on labour law reform, the list goes on. The suggestion is that, perhaps due to the dichotomous connected/disconnected nature of 21st century life, fiction has come to seem to us more ‘real’ than ‘real life’. 

Fiction has an intensity that we feel should correspond to our lived experiences. It has a focus, a narrative cohesion that does not ring true to the way we live through events ourselves. In fiction, our gaze is directed to colours, to symbols, and to expressions sequentially, while in life everything happens simultaneously so that we only notice parts, which are not always those we should be noticing. But perhaps most notably, fiction allows us to rehearse a life without having to live it, to embody the other while retaining the self, to die without dying, and to love without loving. Fiction gives us access to the life of another in a way that would never be possible in ‘real life’ and therefore enables great empathy, as well as great animosity. 

It is not incomprehensible why we feel for the fates of fictional characters but it is dangerous not to understand the power of narrative seduction or recognise our fatal attraction to it. Narrative can influence life and not always in a positive way, and it is just as well harnessed for propaganda, for misinformation, for the erasure of voices. Narrative is never neutral and in our emotional reactions to it, we can never forget to remain critical. 

Lara Machado, Social Media Editor

Recommended reading:

How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?
Seduced by the Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative by Peter Brooks

Published by Anabelle Zaris