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Fiction and Society 1

The Influence of Fiction on Society and Culture


Sarah G. Chu
Glen Allen High School

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Introduction
As modern society evolves, so does, it seems, its devotion to the fictional and fantastical.
Works like Tolkiens Lord of the Rings and series such as Star Wars and Star Trek have defined
generations with their comprehensive worlds and characters. As of 2013, the San Diego ComicCon, a national convention held for fans of comic books and other related mediums, had more
than 130,000 people attend. J.K Rowlings Harry Potter Series has had more than 450 million
books in print worldwide. Of that, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows alone sold 11 million
copies on its first day of release in the United States and UK. Even websites such as
Fanfiction.net entirely devote themselves to fan-written literature, containing more than 3
million works based off of existing mediums. Education likewise acknowledges the role of
fiction in conveying universal themes and social commentary to the masses in an understandable
medium. The question, then, lies in how closely the two fiction, and society- interact and
influence each other. By understanding fictions role in society and whether it truly has power
over people actions, decisions can be made of whether mediums of fiction are valid sources of
education. [This paper reasons that] Fiction influences society by presenting universal mediums
of empathy and morality. It can be used to empower others, as well as become a source of
inspiration and idealism. Through fiction, people find themselves learning implicit values and
honing skills that can often not be easily taught in formal settings.
Fan Identification
Fictions role in fan identity exists as a great influence on how the fan perceives
themselves and those around them. Both the subconscious and physical groupings that fans put
themselves in create ways in which they can identify with others of similar interests and,

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furthermore, the world around them. Fan identity and identification with fictional scenarios and
characters fosters identity fluidity and acceptance among fans.
Studies and observational analyses show slightly conflicting views on the role of fiction
and fictional characters in consumer identity, but the general outlook of fictions influence on fan
culture and identity remains primarily positive. Judith Butlers theory of performativity closely
relates to identity shaped by fan modeling of a character by suggesting that identities, especially
gender identities, are malleable and can be subverted. While Butler, in the context of
heteronormavity and drag, denounces this, Nicolle Lamerichs applies performativity to those
who consciously dress as a character of the opposite gender. Crossplay, as she calls it, actually
increases fluidity between genders and gender norms, resulting in a level of laxness in gender
roles. When a person crossplays, it can be seen as perfectly acceptable for males to don dresses
and skirts, and females to wear suits and ties.
In cases of fans identifying with a character, regardless of gender, fictional identification
results in a flexible, multilayered idea of identitythat cannot be pinned down (Lamerichs
2011). It is important, however, to note that emphasis upon gender in fiction can lead to
stereotypes that work against positive fan identity. While some cosplayers crossplay, others
purposefully create a costume that depicts the character as if they were the opposite gender
(alternatively known as genderbending). Although this is often done out of convenience for the
fan, people who are transgender, or gender neutral, have sometimes seen it as perpetuating
gender stereotypes by purposefully giving a character traditionally feminine or masculine
qualities. Therefore, genderbended character become offensive. That being said, it is important to
note that, as with every source of social and cultural influence, interpretation and action remains
heavily reliant on the individual. Fights and fandom wars that break out both in members of a

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fan groups and other fandoms most commonly occur because of a mixture of ingroup/outgroup
bias and a lack of respect for the other party.
Expanding upon fan identity and fictional characters, however, wishful identification
describes the process in which the desire to be like or act like a character shapes consumers
identity and behavior (Hoffner 2005). Perceived similarity between character and consumer
causes the watcher to shape their values according to the character they admire or identify with.
While this can instill positive values, the more likely danger is that identification with media
characters can have significant social and psychological consequences, such as disordered
eating habits in an effort to physically align with a character (Hoffner 2005), or increased
violent behavior. Most of these consequences, however, depend heavily on visual media, leaving
novels more open mediums. Written forms of fiction are more open to reader interpretation of
character designs, allowing readers more freedom to shape the described characters in terms of
physical appearance.
Despite the possible dangers of identification with a fictional character, when relatable
and representative characters are portrayed in fiction, they can promote acceptance within their
audience. Voice actor Troy Baker, upon being asked about one of his roles a young male
teenager who is teased about his effeminate qualities and (hinted) sexual orientation- confessed
to having fans tell him what [his] character didgave [them]the strength to come out and
finally admit that [theyre] a homosexual (Darrell and Lauren 2012). Similarly, the television
show Glee, which features a diverse cast including various races, genders, homosexuals and
transgendered persons, presents both good morals and representation to its audience, which may
include people undertaking similar experiences.

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Activism
Activism draws upon current and relevant issues within the community, and seeks to gain
as much support as it can in order to evoke change. For that reason, fiction and literature have
shown to be invaluable in spreading common goals and values. Some of the most prominent
examples of fictional activism include Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin and Upton
Sinclairs The Jungle, which produced such strong shock among readers that it led to changes
in attitude and legislation regarding the issues discussed (Hamid and Prose 2015). It is implied
that fiction narratives have the power to offer another view about what can be considered
universal issues, and for that they increase peoples empathy and raise the chance of political
activism.
A phenomena occurring more recently within society the use of well-known media and
pop culture to channel a distinct theme and message and apply them to real life situations. This
type of activism has been growing more and more popular and diverse, most likely because it
employs a medium that everyone is familiar with and can relate to. Whats even more interesting
is the media attention that it propagates. Protesters in Bilin, Palestine, dressed as the Navi from
James Camerons Avatar and approached an Israeli military barricade (Brough and Shresthova
2012). Because of the familiar medium that was used in the activism, pictures and videos of the
protest caught the attention of news media outlets. The Chair of Popular Committee of Bilin,
Iyad Burnat, said in regards to the use of popular media and fiction in protests: most people in
the world know about Avatar, and it is similar to the Palestinian situation, and gives a message to
the people (Kerr 2014). Activists, traditional or modern, are able to use universal fiction in a
multitude of mediums to spread universal messages to people.

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Education and Creativity
Educating people seems to become a harder and harder task as society progresses.
Educating social values becomes especially hard due to the diversity and multitude of societal
and cultural norms that influence a persons thought process. At least at the basic level, theres
much hope that certain mediums of fiction -comic books, for example- will encourage others to
learn a multitude of skills. Fiction envelops almost all forms of media and popular culture for
society, creating a powerful source of implicit education for people especially todays youth.
The greatest power of fiction lies in how stories of physical and metaphorical adventure
enrapture readers in their plots. The average citizen may not be able to sit down and read a
scholarly dissertation on the decline and propagation of the Apis Mellifera population, but short
story or comic depicting the plight of a young boy in saving the dwindling Honeybee population
could be easily consumed in moments. With comic books and other visual forms of fiction, such
as movies, picture books, and television shows, the readers interest in the storyline of the
medium can be used at an educational advantage.
For example: Stan Lee, founder of MARVEL Comics, discussed in an interview that
teachers have often told him that reading comic books is one of the best ways to teach literacy
to young children because it appeals to them (Mariam 2014). The desire to understand the
plotline of a story featuring a superhero or adventure character spurs them to learn the words that
are written on the page. While simple narratives of this is Spot, see spot run are added to books
designed to teach young children to read, it stands to reason that a more effective option would
be to introduce budding readers to something that would keep their attention and make them
interested in learning to understand the sentences in front of them. Once readers have a solid

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grasp on language, writing narratives can aid them in mastering that language in the same way
through constant attempts at improving ones storytelling ability.
Other applications include remembering important historical and cultural events. James
Prothero compares fiction and science fiction to mythology. The tendency of schools is to
approach knowledge solely through reason: to teach just the facts, not the meaningful context
(Prothero 1990). Students often learn history by dates and events, but the emotional context of
the people becomes lost in exchange. By weaving knowledge into the narrative format placing a
character into the events and telling of their experiences, for example- historical fiction can
become a powerful tool in teaching the significance of certain events, rather than looking at
history from a distant perspective. Like in activism, presenting relatable examples makes a
message more accessible, leading to students learning social significance as well.
Implicitly, then, fiction serves as an effective way to teach values and social norms to
youth and society as a whole. Johnathan Gottschall reasons that fiction seems to be more
effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction (Gottschall 2012). Fiction, rather than nonfiction
-which is meant to be persuasive- appeals to emotions. It enhances our ability to understand
other people, promotes a deep morality, and (interestingly enough), it tells readers the lie
that the world is more just than it actually is, which promotes a certain sense of optimism in
life (Gottschall 2012). In a study conducted by Mar and Keith Oatley, it was concluded that
entering fictions simulated social worlds enhance [peoples] ability to connect with actual
human beings (Gottschall 2012). For that reason, empathy is repeatedly cited as one of the most
influential aspects that fiction can teach others.
Voice actors Troy Baker and Laura Bailey describe the spread of empathy through
mediums of fiction as the opportunity to be a part of something that isnt just entertainment

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(Darell and Lauren 2012). When discussing some of their experiences with the fictional
narratives that theyve worked with, the two were humbled by the reception theyre work
received. Bailey recounted a young girl with Aspergers syndrome who told her that watching
Fruits Basket [a Japanese anime series] helped her identify her emotions better (Darrell and
Laura 2012). Seeing a visual narrative, even though that narrative is fictitious, helps those who
may have trouble understanding and coping with real life situations gain some sense of reference
that increases their ability to empathize and take action. Baker expanded upon this concept,
commenting:
I think that video games as a narrative, not just as an entertainment medium but actually
as something thats more profound than that, because youre observing those things but
your also part of it.
Personal involvement and attachment to fiction and its themes presents easily
understandable and universal concepts that raise a persons empathy. By studying and analyzing
fiction and its values, the audience implicitly learns social norms and emotional constructs,
leading to a moral development.
Fans can also learn valuable skills through creation of products inspired by the fiction
they read. Fan works such as fan fiction, fan moviesfan art, and cosplay are described as
encouraging fans to closely interpret existing texts, perform them, and extend them with their
own narratives and ideas (Lamerichs 2011). Fan works, therefore, become mediums of critical
thinking and creativity. For all that they imitate the original source, creators of fan works often
use vital critical thinking and problem solving skills without even realize it. Creating crafts such
as a favorite characters costume or weapon, can also indirectly help develop skills of sewing or
molding materials. Book clubs and other discussions featured on forums for certain fandoms can

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vary in quality, but fans often capitulate their own theories and scenarios based off of evidence
from the text, subtly modeling the analysis process used by literary critics albeit possibly on a
shallower level. Fanfiction, despite being seen as a lower form of literature, of varying quality,
bordering on tons of copyright and plagiarism issues, does have undeniable merits. It can lead to
the creation of meticulously planned and ironically original plots or twist of a familiar medium
(often in the form of AUs alternate universe stories). Sarah Rees Brennan, author of the
Demons Lexicon series, began as a fanfiction writer under the pseudonym Maya. She was later
able to evolve her writing into publishable material.
Conclusion
The resulting consensus among the literature community is that fiction is wildly powerful
in its effect on society and its cultural values. That being said, the main debate lies in whether
this effect is positive or negative, and whether fiction should be seen as a legitimate source of
education. Studies show that cultural identity is determined in part by the popular media, and that
the appearance of new social norms, such as homosexuality, in television and literature positively
increase peoples perception. Furthermore, fan identity can be greatly influenced by the
identification of a character to their person. Popular media can also be used by activists to spread
attention to their cause.
Because of the increase of empathy in people who consume fiction as opposed to almost
any other medium of communication, it can be surmised that reading fiction can be used to
educate people socially in positive ways.

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References
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Political Participation." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry
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Darrel, Lauren. (2012, March 7). FF Union: Snow and Serah Voice Actor Interview. Final
Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts Union.
Gottschall, J. (2012, April 29). Why Fiction is Good for You: the beautiful lies of novels, movies,
and TV stories have surprisingly powerful effects and may even help make society tick.
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Hamid, M., Prose, F., (2015, February 17). Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?
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Kerr, D. (2014, June 17). Our goal is to have our freedom: Interview with Iyad Burnat on
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