Fiction isn't real in the same way that a biography is real or the news is real (or so we hope). Nonfiction portrays real events, real people, and real thoughts, while fiction is lost in worlds of imagination where, even in the most realistic depictions, what's happening simply isn't 'real', or at least not entirely true to reality.
Does such a difference mean that fiction is less valuable than nonfiction?
It is through fiction -- reading it, writing it, discussing it -- that we can learn how to relate to, pretend to be, and empathize with people and situations that did not and likely may never exist. This traces back to writing's unique ability to tap into deep and specific human psychology in ways no other art form can. Obviously, there is psychological depth to music, movies, painting, and all the other art forms, but it is only writing that can specifically declare, due to the exactness of words, 'This is precisely what I am thinking and precisely how I am feeling right now.' All other art forms can merely approximate. The true depths of their messages struggle to overcome the vague, as without words it is near impossible to convey the conflicting nuances of deep human thought.
This shortcoming of non-writing art by no means makes writing a superior form, as there are benefits inherent to every art form that the others can't match, making each one vital, but it does assert that written language is how we gain access to specific deep psychologies. For fiction, that means access to those psychologies in hypothetical form.
Hypothetical psychologies are important. They are also real. They're just real in a different way than nonfictional psychologies are real.
To that end, fiction is real in a different way than most things are real.
To understand that fiction is real is the first level to its unique importance. The second level of fiction's importance is the reader's or writer's ability to leverage the perception of fiction as real in order to interact with stories such that they can affect positive personal change. The third and final level, which I believe requires an incredible amount of love and humility, is to embrace fiction as the only way to experience certain real things that our tangible world does not provide.
For example, the Harry Potter universe isn't real. As much as I hate to be the one to break that to you, and as much as Universal Studios might argue with me about that, I also don't believe that the Harry Potter universe isn't real.
The Harry Potter universe is contained in a physical series of books. When we read these books, we experience all of Harry's adventures. The adventures feel real, Harry feels real, and over the course of seven books we get to know him and other characters in ways that make them feel like our friends, our enemies, our lost loved ones who will never return.
*Pours some out for Cedric*
In that sense, just as our dreams and imaginations allow us to contemplate all kinds of experiences unreal in our physical world, the Harry Potter universe is real because it is real in our minds. Someone, perhaps magically, created stories full of characters and conflicts that emotionally affect us. Anything that can be made capable of affecting our lives is real, at least in some meaningful sense. To not acknowledge that is simple ignorance.
That's the first level of the importance of fiction.
The second level is to leverage our perception of Harry Potter and other written fictions as real in order to affect positive change in ourselves. Once we believe in Harry and his friends, that's not so hard to accomplish. The books take us into Harry's psychology, as alongside him we brave conflict after conflict. Through each adventure, we witness Harry's admirable qualities, such as loyalty to his friends and courage in the face of danger, and we absorb his thought processes. By the time we're done with each book, we've internalized how Harry and other characters think. We've walked in their shoes and now have several, perhaps even dozens of perspectives from which to contemplate how to approach similar conflicts in our own lives.
That's how level two grows us as people. We learn empathy thanks to understanding many different types of characters. We learn how to deal with problems we've never faced in our real lives thanks to being led through similar situations. We grow because we acknowledge our reading experience as real, and thus worth more than mere entertainment. Reading fiction becomes something worth learning from.
Whereas levels one and two are both present in nonfiction -- nonfiction is both real and easy to believe in for edification -- level three is where fiction separates itself. Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the power of this third level is through my favorite exchange from the hit sci-fi TV show The Expanse:
Colonel Janus: You know what sailors used to say when their ships went past the end of their maps?
Dr. Iturbi: Time for a new map?
Janus: Here there be dragons.
Oh yes. Here on level three, there be dragons.
Dragons aren't real. I wish they were, and maybe they once were and we have yet to uncover the evidence, but for the sake of argument let's assume that dragons are not and never have been real. But we can picture dragons. We can imagine defeating or befriending them in our most glorious dreams and suffering their wrath in our worst nightmares. In this way, stories passed along, such as Harry Potter, have created dragons. Fictional stories have made dragons real. Not physically, but what and how we perceive in our minds is a healthy chunk of our realities, even when we're focused on our actual version of the universe.
This creation of the real not provided by our world is not limited to dragons. From Mordor to the Starship Enterprise to the inner thoughts of Mrs. Dalloway, fiction creates entire worlds, languages (such as Star Trek's Klingon), the psychologies of people who will never exist, and so much more. None of these ideas might be real in the way that water is real, but they become real in our minds and real in our hearts.
That's why this final level requires an incredible amount of love and humility. It's one thing to grant that fiction is real, another to embrace that realness such that we grow from it, and yet another to allow ourselves to believe that fiction is absolutely necessary because it creates worlds, mindsets, situations, and other concepts that our tangible lives lack and probably always will. Without fiction creating these ideas, our reality is limited to only what can physically be.
That's boring. That's selling the psychological beauty of humans short. In allowing fiction to take us places where nonfiction could never go, we expand ourselves. We expand the possibilities of who and what we can love, how we can dream, why we believe we're here at all, where anything real and worthy ought to come from, and when it's okay to step away from the known in order to open a book of fiction or scribble down our wild thoughts, because at least for an hour or two that feels like such a great way to experience our lives.
For readers and writers to be able to both care about and create the real from the unreal, the unknown, the impossible, the incomprehensible, and thus the irrational, is an incredible form of not just understanding, not just a willingness to suspend belief of only the real, but an immeasurable form of love that ought to be treasured.
That's because fiction is a place to explore that which nonfiction does not allow us to explore. When our minds can be stretched like that, and we dedicate ourselves to that stretching, the benefits, however intangible, can be immense.