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The Power of Fiction

World in your Hands

Good fiction changes the world.

Submarine inventor Simon Lake was directly inspired by the work of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Martin Cooper, the director of research at Motorola, created the first mobile phone based on the Star Trek communicator. Even the TASER was invented by a fiction fan – Jack Cover grew up reading Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift books, one of which featured an “electric rifle”. In fact, the word TASER is an acronym for Tom A Swift’s Electric Rifle.

But it’s not just in the realm of science that fiction changes the world. The book Uncle Tom’s Cabin is widely credited as being instrumental in changing social perceptions of slavery, and many people believe it directly contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. To Kill a Mockingbird had a huge impact on race relations after its release. And, in more recent times, Anthony Gierzynski, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, found empirical evidence [1] that the Harry Potter series influenced the political views of millennials significantly enough that J.K. Rowling’s work is indirectly responsible for Obama’s success at the polls.

“If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.”

– Martin Luther

Yes, good fiction changes the world.

And yet, how often do we think about when we sit down to bang out tens of thousands of words about sparkly vampires, amateur sleuths, or wise-cracking action heroes?

The art we create, the writing we do, is not a small thing. Storytelling is a sacred trust; a promise between writer and reader.

I’ve spoken to many people who say it’s one thing if you’re writing a book about race or gender or injustice or something “serious”. But when they’re penning an entertaining book about two people falling in love, they have no intention, or hope, of changing the world.

To those people I say: Why not?

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

– Mother Teresa

Let me tell you a story.

Like many of us, I was bullied and victimised as a child. I spent most of my formative years terrified to go to school, and suffering from (as yet undiagnosed) depression and anxiety. By the time I was twelve years old, I’d scuttle between classes and spend my lunch breaks hiding either in the library or the bathroom.

One day, after a particularly difficult class where I’d been humiliated in front of my peers, I found myself hiding in the school gardens, counting the seconds until I could go back into class where the presence of a teacher would at least minimise the bullying. I was skulking behind a particularly large tree when I was approached by the school gardener.

His name was Bill. He was an old, skinny man with thin hair and a perpetual hunch to his shoulders. I’d never spoken to him before. I’d barely even noticed him, other than to be grateful that occasionally the kids would stop bullying me for long enough to make fun of him. I had no reason to believe that he even knew who I was.

“I have a book you might like,” he said by way of greeting. He handed me a novel, and then walked away. He didn’t even wait for a thank you.

I stared at the book he’d given me. I’d never seen anything like it. I’d graduated from reading The Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators straight into crime fiction and spy thrillers a couple of years earlier. But this book didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen before. The cover was bright and bold, and had a picture of a knight in shining armour, a girl in a mask, and a group of animals. I couldn’t imagine why Bill thought I’d like it.

I started reading it purely because I had nothing else to do. Within five pages, I was hooked. I read that book – The Unlikely Ones by Mary Brown [2] – twice during the following week. Then I returned it to Bill. He took it wordlessly. We never spoke again.

But the book… Oh, that book stayed with me. Not only did it introduce me to fantasy fiction, it introduced me to a character who would change everything.

The Unlikely Ones is a story about a teenage girl called Thing who has a pebble embedded in her stomach that causes her constant pain. She’s held prisoner by an evil witch, and tormented every moment of every day. She’s stupid and ungainly and ugly, and the witch never tires of telling her so. The only consolation in Thing’s awful life is the bond she shares with a series of animals, all of whom are likewise tortured by the witch.

When the witch is killed by a group of angry villagers, Thing and her companions embark on a quest to find the Dragon of Black Mountain, who will remove the pebble from Thing’s stomach. Along the way, Thing learns to trust herself, and blossoms into the intelligent, beautiful woman she truly is.

That book changed my life.

No, that book saved my life.

From that moment on, when the bullies made me feel stupid, I remembered Thing. When they tripped me over, and pushed me down, and beat me up, I remembered Thing. When they called me a “disgusting thing” and dared each other to touch me, I remembered Thing. And, when life got ever so much harder, and I found myself sitting in my bedroom with a knife poised over my own wrist, a hard knot of anxiety in my stomach, I remembered Thing. And I put the knife away.

That book changed my world.

“As one person, I cannot change the world, but I can change the world for one person.”

– Paul Shane Spear

When Mary Brown sat down to write The Unlikely Ones, she couldn’t have known that there would one day be a teenage girl in Australia who would read it and take strength from the adventures of Thing. But that’s what happened. And that’s what I remember every time I sit down to write.

Someone out there needs my story. Someone out there is just waiting to read my words, and have their world changed forever. And the same is true for you.

You are a writer. Go and write.

You will change the world.

What book changed your world? Do you keep that in mind when you write?

About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.