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Can You Learn More From Fiction Than Nonfiction?

Learning a little something from everything you read.

I’ve said it a hundred times if I’ve said it once: “Write what you know, read what you don’t.” Writing what you know makes your work compelling and complete, while reading what you don’t, outside pure escapism, lets you learn something on all those pages.

I was thinking about this juxtaposition while reading a new book called God Made Us Monsters. The author, Bill Neary, clearly knows his stuff, but I only knew a little bit about the subject. The story focuses on Father Damien, a real priest who voluntarily treated lepers on the island of Molokai in the late 1800s. There are plenty of nonfiction books about him, but God Made Us Monsters took a novel approach — it fictionalized this future saint’s life.

I was intrigued. Why do this? Are there advantages to fictionalizing aspects of his life? After all, the story takes a few liberties with Father Damien’s life, adding allies and a worthy demonic opponent capable of holding his own against the good father’s faith. It also imparts a moral lesson modern historians insist should be absent from the past.

That doesn’t mean God Made Us Monsters is bad history. In fact, it’s rather good history, if a fanciful retelling.

Like all good historical fiction, though, it offers certain advantages over its nonfiction counterparts.

What Can Historical Fiction Do Better Than Nonfiction?

  1. It makes history easier to remember. People love stories because they’re easier to God Made Us Monsters 96dpirecall, and while good nonfiction often comes in a story form that goes beyond dates and facts and figures, storytelling is endemic to fiction.
  2. Fiction offers new insights. Fiction gives its characters voice, and if well-researched, you can hear they way speak, feel the way they move, understand their emotions, and know how they lived. The person is much more likely to seem real to the reader.
  3. Fiction brings the past alive. As with storytelling and character, setting is absolutely essential to good fiction. It allows readers to better understand life from a long, long time ago.
  4. Fiction will cover the basics. Nonfiction might assume you know certain facts or previous events. Fiction rarely makes this assertion. Rather, it invites you in so that you know everything you need to know to understand the story.
  5. Nonfiction can be bad history. Nonfiction has plenty of stories in it, too, but those stories can be wrong. Washington chopping down the cherry tree? Nope. Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag? Uh-uh. Teddy Roosevelt riding up San Juan Hill? Wrong hill. But we remember those stories because they’re entertaining. Good  historical fiction makes sure they’re both entertaining and accurate (or at least delineates that which is clearly fiction).

God Made Us Monsters fits each of these five points. It’s a solid read that gives a voice to Father Damien, a figure I only vaguely knew, and brings alive a locale I’ve never visited. It allows me to figuratively step into that long-abolished leper colony in a way nonfiction would never allow — and it does so in a most-entertaining fashion. And all because the author wrote something he knows, and I took a chance and read something I didn’t.


One comment on “Can You Learn More From Fiction Than Nonfiction?

  1. Pingback: Can You Learn More From Fiction Than Nonfiction? | Atombank Books

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2016 by in Books, Fiction, History, Nonfiction, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , .


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