Can a Story Matter?
Everyone has their own reasons for writing. Some write to express themselves, others to make a living, and others simply because they love love it. So why do I write?
To be fair, nobody has one single reason for doing anything they do, but I can certainly talk about some of my main ones. First and foremost, I’d have to say that I write to entertain. There are two ends of the spectrum in the writing world: on one end, there’s the real avant-garde stuff — kick-you-in-the-teeth art designed to make folks either stroke their chins and say, “Ah-yes, how profound!”, or else “What in God’s name just happened? A traveling salesman went to bed and woke up as a giant insect?” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the pulpiest of the pulpy, featuring large amounts of guns and explosions, and quite possibly designed to kill as many of the reader’s brain cells as possible. Most stories fall somewhere in between, and in my case, I’ll repeat that I write mostly to entertain — but that doesn’t mean I don’t want the reader to take something from the story, because I also write to tell a story that matters.
What does that mean? How does a story matter? Can a story matter? I don’t believe one has to stop and think for long to say yes, a story can matter. Plato’s Republic was written over 2000 years ago, and yet it still influences modern politics. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a catalyst for the abolitionist movement in the latter part of the 19th century. I could list others: A Christmas Carol, The Diary of Anne Frank, 1984 … and it could go on.
But here’s the catch, in my opinion at least: if someone sets out to purposefully write a monumental, influential story, he or she will most likely fail. It has to be a story first and foremost, with characters that grab the reader and a plot that makes them want to go to the next page. Deliberately pushing for deep, significant fiction often comes across as flat and forced. It’s like trying to cook dinner using only seasonings, without including the essential base of the meal itself. Case in point, take Speaker of the Dead: it was supposed to be Orson Scott Card’s big kahuna, his novel to establish serious social and political commentary. To set up the main character in Speaker of the Dead, Card wrote the short story Ender’s Game, which he later expanded to a full novel — and that story is the one that kicked ass. A similar situation happened with Go Set a Watchman, the first novel Harper Lee wrote. Lee’s editor, upon reading the draft, said to her, “This book is good and all — but I want to hear more about these flashbacks Scout is having. Tell us about when Scout was a young girl. Tell us about the trial.” So Lee wrote about the trial, and you may know it as To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman, on the other hand, collected dust for over 50 years before it ever saw a bookstore.
A story can matter, but it has to matter in every way. It will not have a deep, profound impact unless the characters matter, unless their struggles matter, and unless the reader cares. Do I hope that readers take something from Warrior of Light? I sure as hell hope they do. I hope they understand the lessons Tim’s father passes on to him, and apply those lessons to their own lives. I hope they understand the strength Quentiin must show in the darkest of places, and find some strength of their own when they need it. I hope boys see the difference between the way Boblin treats women and the way Hedro treats women, and choose to be like Boblin. I hope girls read about Rosalie and Celia, and decide they will be confident badasses too.
At the end of the day, yes, Warrior of Light is a story about two wizards trying to blow each other up, about monsters in the night and heroes on the battlefield. And I hope readers think it is as much of a wild ride as I did. But I also hope readers take something more from it, each reader in his or her own way, because stories do matter, and that is what makes them worthwhile.