Finding Purpose Through Stories

Why are we really drawn to stories, particularly fantasy that we cover on this channel? Some people say it’s just “dragons and wizards and shit” and isn’t important because they aren’t real.

Some would say that fantasy or sci-fi, whether books, TV or movies provides some type of escape from our everyday lives. To perhaps be someone else for an hour, or a season. Stories let us be a noble knight in medieval times like Ser Author Dayne, a treasure hunter like Indiana Jones, a Hobbit that carries the weight of the world, or even a survivor of a zombie apocalypse. They let us wield swords and shields, conjure magic with a staff or wand, or, the ability to fly. At its core these stories allow us to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to save the world, or perhaps just a cat in a tree. They allow us to experience forbidden love and fairy tale endings where he or she does in fact return to you after having to let them go. Stories let us accomplish greater deeds than just getting that financial report in on time, diagnose that server issue, or pass that exam we have worried about for weeks. But escape is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

For five years I have talked about TV shows and movies here on this channel, breaking them down, over analyzing things, in some cases reading fictional history and lore so you don’t have to. But there has always been a deeper question there. What really attracts us these stories whether its books, TV shows, movies or even video games? What is interesting is that we are not always attracted to some superhero archetype. Why do we want to experience a zombie apocalypse, or go up against that dark lord in Mordor when all seems hopeless? These characters are not in a good place, certainly not better than our cozy homes with running water and electricity. We are already in a better place than them it seems, at least on the surface.

However, these characters whether hero or villain, survivor or superhero, knight or dark lord, have something that a lot of us at least don’t…. purpose.

Finding Purpose seems to be a major driving force in our lives, it’s almost primal. It outweighs the quest for money, love, power or fame. Purpose is what drives us. In the case of the apocalypse survivor, although we would likely give up our security, health and happiness, we identify with their clearly defined purpose and it moves us. This is likely why many of us seek this escape, our lives and careers often don’t give us a defined purpose, or at least many of us haven’t found it yet.

So how do we find this purpose in fantasy? In stories we must create tension. Tension between what we have done, and have left to do, or tension between what we are and what we must become and so on.

So, in the case of TV shows. movies and even games, the authors challenge the characters, and therefore us, with a potential meaning or goal to fulfill. This is where stories evoke our will to fulfill a purpose. Therefore, in stories having a goal to strive for, gives our characters the drive to act but also gives the world it takes place in meaning, making all tasks and interactions purposeful and fun.

Examples of this are some of the many tropes used in stories and why the endure the test of time. Therefore, most horror movies take place at night. This plays off the reality of children being afraid of the dark. Why? This is a primal fear of what we can’t see can hurt us, because what we can’t see, we don’t understand and have no control over. What you can’t see, you can’t confront. We relate to this; it takes us back to our childhood when we built those blanket forts to keep the monsters of our imagination at bay. If you can’t see them, they aren’t there. If you want more tension in a story, turn off the lights, or set a scene at night with a dark forest looming in the background.

This is likely why Mordor is dark and barren, as opposed to the colorful shire, dark lords are associated with actual darkness stemming from this primal fear. This is why in Game Of Thrones the dark haunted forest in the frozen north always loomed in the background, and over time tension grew as to what exactly were in those woods.

This trope of fear of the dark gives purpose to its opposite, the day. The daylight must be used to prepare for the night to come. So, while this situation would be terrifying in our real lives, we are excited by the tension of a setting sun in this case. Whether that’s gathering resources, or building that fortress of blankets, these actions during the day throughout these stories are given meaning with the primal goal of surviving the night.

Purpose is why we are attracted to post apocalypse zombie shows like The Walking Dead. In this world all the things we deal with in everyday life like school, jobs, social media, or appearance no longer matter. These worlds give the characters renewed purpose, and therefore the viewer or reader. Everything is simplified to the purpose of simply surviving. In this case, tension is built on trying to acquire basic needs such as food, water, shelter and companionship. And then it goes deeper. there are always the narratives of wanting to protect loved ones or take out a gang of thugs preying on others during this lawless world. These narratives start to transcend the sole purpose of surviving alone and build a purpose bigger than ourselves. Rebuilding, recovering and even thriving. This means there is always somthing to do in these worlds other than just sit around in our forts, we get to go out of our safe zones, fulfill quests and level up.

We get to go out of our safe zones, fulfill quests and level up.

This trope is why many of us take vacations. We want a change of scenery, and our purpose is to simply enjoy ourselves, therefore every action carries its own weight to fulfill that overarching purpose to have fun. Going back to the survivor example, maybe this is why some of us choose to go camping and hiking on vacation rather than stay in a comfortable room somewhere. We want to get back to nature, knowing that there is some danger there, but certainly not enough risk to keep us home. So, we build that blanket fort outside somewhere and even face the darkness, knowing we have flashlights, food and weapons. But we get a taste, a small taste of that fantasy world.

Purpose is why we enjoy a good prison break movie or show. Regardless of who they were, their days are decided for them. To escape gives them purpose again, and each day their mundane routine that they are normally accustomed to becomes a purposeful action. This excites us, in some cases we may even pull for them because what greater purpose than to regain your own freedom. The tension is there because they can get caught at any time.

We even find purpose in the antagonists or villains of our stories. When told properly, the villain within a story, as George RR Martin put it, is just a hero of the other side. They have purpose too. We may not agree with it, but from their point of view they are doing the right thing.

This is why we like Anakin Skywalker in that galaxy far, far away, even after he falls to the proverbial darkness. His renewed purpose, although revenge on the ones he used to love, moves us because we know his past. In his mind it’s the right thing to do. He believes love and knowledge was taken from him by a corrupt Jedi order.

Sauron the dark lord, in Lord of the rings, has purpose as well. He used to be something different and beautiful, but he was corrupted. We don’t necessarily pull for him, as the purpose of the Frodo, Eragon, Gandalf and the rest may override that in our minds, but nevertheless that’s what makes him a good villain.

The classic heros journey is ultimate expression of purpose and why it will always work in stories, regardless of genre or setting. It speaks to our own humanity. In the short version, the hero starts the story living a normal life, something happens, and he needs to act. He or she then resists but ultimately accepts his new purpose. He then goes out into the world and accomplishes the goal and comes back in the end a different person. The change was gradual due to the experiences he had on said journey. Loss, love, pain, suffering and triumph. Think of Frodo here. Ultimately regardless of how it happened the one ring was destroyed, they good guys won and the evil banished, his purpose fulfilled. Then what, he still had to leave middle earth because what purpose does he have after that?

This applies to video games as well. Why will someone find the discipline to spend hours completing quests and leveling up day after day, but not necessarily put that effort into the real world? Because these fantasy worlds are filled with purpose and all the actions and interactions are meaningful. And then once we complete the purpose, we no longer have a reason to play and need the next fix. This reflects our own reality. So, in many cases these TV shows, movies and games become our purpose, because of the increased lack of purpose in the real world.

What draws you into fantasy worlds, and will you take inspiration from it to find your own purpose in life? Fantasy isn’t just “dragons and wizards and shit”, it’s a reflection of our own reality. A fantasy author can ask “what if” and we can take inspiration and ask, “why not” and create something new. Everything you use in your daily lives used to be someone’s fantasy. So, fantasy is important, and we are not bound by the rules of a fictional world. We can therefore we can choose to find our own purpose.