A Reason Humans Have Stories

My most fertile creative time is that space just between sleeping and waking, particularly if I have the residue of a dream in my head. Dreams speak to me in, perhaps, a more substantial way than most people; many of my best plots and characters and fictional visions of beauty are ripped directly from my dreams, and likewise many of my best insights.

So when I awoke this morning with a vivid dream still ripe in my head, I was unsurprised. This was a tale of heroism, of a WWII supply plane filled with doctors and nurses that had to get through to a town that desperately needed medical assistance. The pilot and a team of special forces men worked together to break through a solid line of enemy, some of them dying heroically but dreadfully. In the end, success came down to the instincts of the young flight navigator, who had a preternatural insight about where the AKAK was and when it would fire on them that night – and at exactly the right moment, he was bold enough and certain enough to tell the pilot to roll left NOW. 

Without that one critical moment, a moment that required no physical heroism but all of a man’s mental heroism, they would have all died. 

And as the plane is landing, the doctors and nurses cheering, the one lovely young nurse the navigator was secretly in love with was looking at him with her heart in her eyes, making it clear to him that when this was all over, when they had landed and done their job and she had time, the young navigator was getting the heroic reward, and pal, it was more than a kiss.

I mean, really – a kiss? You save the princess from the dragon, Mighty Hero, and you get a kiss? The land is saved, the giant killed, the three impossible tasks resolved – and all you get is a freakin’ peck on the lips?

I don’t think so. That kiss stands in for serious mind-blowing sex, that first-love sex that can be the worst possible and still be better than anything you ever did in your life. It’s “I survived” sex. The hand of the princess and half the kingdom? You, Hero, deserve that. Without your unthinking courage and willingness to sacrifice yourself, there would be no princess and no kingdom at all. And the princess’s reward? In the story, hero, it is her life and future, the stand-in for the real-life reward: your true and faithful love, forever.

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Spreading the cultural idea of action-consequence, in the above case a marvelous reward, is at least one reason we have stories. Animals, so far as we can tell, don’t tell stories. They are not particularly altruistic, with the exception of a few domesticated species – primarily dogs – and certain pack animals. The altruism of a pack animal is to ensure the survival of the pack. But humans, while social, are not pack animals. They are primarily monogamous creatures, despite the protestations of alternative lifestyle advocates, that create a specific type of society: groups of mated pairs and their progeny (for more on that, read the fascinating Marriage and Civilization by William Tucker). Standard monogamous mated animal pairs, like swans or beavers, do not sacrifice for anything outside their own core family. Why should they? They aren’t going to mate with others of their species, so there is no evolutionary reason for them to risk their lives or comfort, or even share resources with potential rivals.

Humans, on the other hand, sacrifice not only for their core families, but for their entire clan, their villages, and even their worlds. They sacrifice for the good of completely unrelated humans – giving up life in war or desperate situations, giving up material goods when others are dying for lack of them. There is NO other species on Earth that does this. There is also no other species on earth that tells stories.

Stories inspire this altruism. That is their core reason for being. They touch your soul and influence you to behave a certain way, historically a heroic way. That young navigator in my dream – he would normally have had to settle for a lesser girl. I mean, he was just a young, scrawny fellow, unheroic in appearance, probably a little shy and awkward. But he saved the princess and all her friends (or, in this situation, the kingdom as symbolized by the crew) – so he got the princess. Every story like this – and there are many – inspires our young men to behave in a heroic manner, and our princesses to look at heroes as desirable. It reinforces behaviors that are highly, highly beneficial to humanity as a whole.

So I look around at the ways stories have changed in the last half-century, changes that have roots much further back, and I worry. We have gone from hero to antihero, from princess to HBO’s Girls. There isn’t even a word for many of the lead character types we have created, unlike the venerable Hero and his many companions in the Journey. I confess to loving Walter Mitty, but he is hardly a character to aspire to. Breaking Bad is brilliantly written, but it is difficult to point at anyone in the show and say, there, that is the kind of heroism I want to instill in my child. 

We need heroes, as a culture. We also need princesses. There are solid sociological reasons the traditional boy-rescues-girl story came about. And we need to start writing stories in which his courage and her desirability are central, stories that inspire young men and women to be greater than they are, stories that elevate our culture and show even the most desperately poor in spirit of us that there is more. We need less, much less, of the other stuff, the antiheroes and the omphaloskeptic narcissists, the stories without plot and the stories that end without even hope, much less success. 

Stories are the soul, in a very literal sense, of a culture. What kind of soul do we want our culture to have? And how do stories in which heroes go unrewarded or, indeed, are punished, change the soul of our culture? I think Western civilization does not currently have answers, and perhaps has not even considered the questions seriously. That lack of cultural insight leads to cultural solipsism, which trickles down to individuals and ultimately leads to anarchy. The effect is clear in contemporary storytelling (visual and written both) and art today.

If you want to write fiction that appeals to conservatives and conservatarians and many, many others, think carefully about those two questions every time you sit down to write. Your stories will be the better for it, and perhaps together we can work to drag our culture out of the flooding arroyo it finds itself in today.