“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere” - Albert Einstein. The brain contains a powerhouse of imagination. We are inexplicably attracted to stories - take J.K. Rowling’s world-renowned series, Harry Potter, or George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. It’s not uncommon to find avid collectors with piles of memorabilia or limited edition merchandise. So what is the inherent appeal of fiction?

Fiction lets us escape

Fiction provides a route to escape from the present reality. It’s easy to relate to the want or need to escape from the current moment, whether it’s during a cosy holiday season or to bring happiness when feeling under the weather. Especially compelling stories with carefully crafted universes, such as J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, are stunning backdrops to explore complex moral or ethical themes. J.R.R Tolkien himself said, “Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories… Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” He paints an image of fiction allowing us to cross any boundary into lands of imagination, despite who or where we are.

Fiction lets us experience

For many centuries we've been enchanted by the excitement of a good story. Even in the past, this love has not been limited to just the “privileged” literate. Ballads have been passed on by word of mouth over many centuries. Tales such as Robin Hood, still recounted (even rewritten as several books and films since today), highlight the ever relevant themes of benevolence, loyalty, and honesty.

Timeless stories are retold over and over. For example, Shakespeare’s plays – amazingly still able to remain fresh after hundreds of years – have been analysed and adapted countless times. Yet, the same themes, struggles and desires are revealed at the core of all human interactions. It's incredible that we can still wonder at Portia’s wisdom, laugh at Bottom’s jokes, and cry for Hamlet’s loss.

A good story’s ability to be moulded and evolve shows its resilience – and it's through these stories that we can experience the unimaginable. Through his works of fiction, Dickens can uncover the squalid living conditions of a working-class, Victorian family. One can sail the Atlantic Ocean on a raft, stroll the streets of sixteenth century Venice, and travel the world in eighty days without even leaving the sitting room. Words on a page can transport you; not only through space, but time, and even beyond the known world.

Fiction provides a voice to the people

Fiction also criticises society. Novelists present their opinions to their readers through symbolism, microcosms and sometimes dramatised versions of their personal experiences. Dystopian novels - such as the Handmaid’s Tale - terrify us by accentuating humankind’s faults in a worst case scenario for all to see. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series, for instance, underlines the racism evident world-wide. Her hypothetical reversal of today’s racial prejudices unashamedly brings the issue to our attention. Books that reimagine harrowing events (such as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, set in WWII) serve as a reminder of the pain and suffering people felt.

Fiction stimulates the imagination – through these imaginary worlds and situations we might even foresee or prevent any horrors the human race might think up next. Take the Maze Runner, for example. It shows a barren planet, ravaged by an incurable disease which continues to spread like wildfire; only the lucky Immunes can survive. Could this have been the literary predecessor of the likes of Ebola or Coronavirus?

Often, fiction interweaves a stark message between its lines. An extraordinary power is given to an author when they write a work of fiction: the power to ask us, “What if…?”

Fiction teaches us how to live

How can we live but by example? Our very essences; our belief, behaviours and thoughts stem from what we learn around us. This isn’t limited just to our environment. Even the language we use is learnt from hearing other people around us talk. Similarly, reading about hypothetical encounters teaches us how we ought – or ought not – to behave.

Writers often draw personal experience to create their characters and their adventures: with exposure to fiction, we can accumulate a wealth of knowledge from several lifetimes.

So stories serve to entertain, show us the world, and question morals and values. They can inspire to believe, encourage to hope, and above all, incite us to make change.

By Isabelle Ho