Why Stories are so (Terrifyingly) Important

And what we should be doing about it.

Abian van der Meijden

Barefoot dragon slayer, illustrator, author, and boss of this site



We all know stories are amazing. A good book is like a glowing magical orb — thrilling, beautiful, and inspiring. The experience is beautifully impossible. Who’d think a soup of words could blend into emotions, and worlds and characters?! Yet, inexplicably, our mind just explodes into the vivid and tangible world of the author every time we engage (*maybe on some distant part of Creation, other souls may one day look at this gift and think it a super power…).

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about what happens after we put down the novel and pull ourselves from the creaky reading chair. What trail do stories leave in the woods of our minds? Surely not just the disturbingly clingy memories of the scenes?

A few days ago, I was listening to N. D. Wilson’s podcast titled Stories are Soul Food. The talk made my fingers burn to write this down. Because it’s really important.

Consequently, most of what I’ve jotted on this post is from the first talk in that podcast series, so if you enjoyed this post (or want to explore more on the topic) I would recommend listening to the series.

Stories are important

We all know parables and fables have existed a long time, and they do so with good reason.

They don’t just entertain. They teach.

All stories preach to our souls. The concept buzzes around the attic of our consciousness, but rarely gets pinned down like it should. Stories contain more than good acting, and amazing concepts — they contain soulful nourishment… stuff our soul needs to grow. And some of them lack it.

Imagination food

Our imagination is just like our body, it needs food. And what better nourishment than stories? Stories have all the intrigue, drama, and roll-playing our imagination thrives on.

Stories have soul, and it makes it easy for our imagination to consume.

But the thing with food, and especially stories, is they go all the way down into our bellies, in a intimate, visceral way…

Stories are Potent

Have you noticed the way good stories and scenes stick? They have a way of burying down into your heart like a stone in the ocean; going all the way down to the bedrock.

I can, for instance, remember the smell and feel of the galley ship as Abramm gets shipped off to who-knows-where (The Light of Eidon, Karen Hancock) — timbers creaking, smell of urine mixed with frothing salt, and the sting of the lashes across his pale, skinny back — as vividly as if I was there myself. Often times, scenes from like these are even more tangible than my own memories. I can remember how Bilbo got Sting in a troll’s cave, but can I remember what I got for my birthday two years ago? And I haven’t read the book in a long time.

Does this something so intimately vivid get absorbed without changing stuff way down? I think not.

And what about the one’s we can’t recall off-hand? Were they less potent? Maybe, but they still have had some accumulative influence, like the coral-crusted landscape of berried boulders lining the seabed of our hearts…

We shouldn’t be too fast to ignore the fact that all the stories we are absorbing — be they remembered are not — are potent and are changing who we want to be in a really deep way.

“The fact that you can't remember things doesn't mean that you haven't been shaped by them.” ― Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life

Where Ideals are Born

Let’s diverge a little from the track and clarify something important.

Our imagination is not only rendering mind-blowing scenes, it’s crafting a portrait our ideal self in the background.

This makes sense. We come into this world unarmed and entirely unsure of what we are supposed to be. We need some sort of reference to copy from. Then we see a beautiful feminine face with our goo-bury eyes (and name her Mom), sometime later the scraggly guy next to her starts to look like a good template. Then there’s the friends you’re making, and that cool character on television… Copy and paste a bit here and good parts from there…

We are constantly adapting our image of who we aught to be and how we aught to act off of people — and characters — we admire. And never stop.

What we see our heroes do and how they react to their circumstances equips us for when we find ourselves in the same situation.

So, while we are reading that great book or watching some movie, what we are experiencing doesn’t only entertain us; it feeds the way we think, and what we want to be.

Okay. We’ve landed on something big here. Stories aren’t just stories, they’re moral training grounds. So the type of stories we pick are incredibly important.

And we can’t be devouring everything we get our hands on…

Dangerous Stories

So what we are saying is that each of us are a bit like a leaf-cutter ant colony. The worker ants keep bringing in leaves and grass to a central column where they feed a fungus. Let’s just imagine the pile of decomposing foliage and superhuman mould is your imagination — the internal part of your soul constantly trying to figure out what the perfect you is like. Well, it gets shaped by what’s brought in.

Great. If it’s all nutritive, the pile in the colony's core will be thriving. But the problem, the terrifying fact, is there’s other stuff out there harmful to that image.

We have had pretty terrible plagues of grass-cutter ants on our front lawn (well… termites. But same sort of thing). And one thing that works really well, especially after the dry season when the grass is scarce and they come mowing what we have left, is a poison called Kamikaze. The stuff looks like grass, probably doesn’t taste too bad, and gets carried right into the heart of the fungus farm.

Anyway, my point is this. It’s awesome to realise that stories can shape you; just know there’s a bunch of stuff you should stay away from, otherwise your worker ants will come carrying it straight into the heart of your mind.

And that’s a really awful place for stuff to go wrong.

There’s a figurative crankshaft inside our mind, directly driving our ideals. It can form them without us necessarily being conscious of it… terrifying.

I don’t know about you, but I sure want to be aware of what’s effecting who I want to be and the decisions flowing from that.


I remember once scouring the design studio’s freezer in desperate (and sudden) hunger and only finding an ancient bit of bread. Instead of going to the store as I should have done, I tried to revive the mouldy thing, first by toasting it and then pouring milk over it (which was a big mistake: it formed a gooey slop). I knew even while I was slurping up the thing, with bits of dried salami floating on top, that it was stupid — but hey, I was hungry.

Stories with bad morals, like bad food, go deep down and aren’t healthy. Eat enough of that sort of thing and it will become like poison in the belly of your mind. We know this instinctively with food — unless, maybe you’re a ravenous teenager — and stay away from the mouldy bread, or the sausage in the back of the fridge sprouting tentacles. We can’t just absorb entertainment without realising the effects of what we’re ingesting has on us.


Escapism. This I’ve seen a lot. In my self too. Its easy really — when you read about a world that sounds so much better than your own, or read posts of people who live perfect lives... It's the type of stuff really cropping up in celebrity-ish stories posted in social media. You watch the fake lives of people that look so perfect and wonder why yours doesn’t look like that. If only I wasn’t born in this house. If only I was smarter. If only—

Stop! Put that stuff down.

No one is perfect. And that’s cliché; so what? Sometimes I wish we just listened to them more.

Setting up your ideal as being anywhere but here, with anyone but them, and anyone but me, is… It’s totally horrible. Not to mention insanely destructive.

God has placed you where you are. And wishing it were different destroys all the good you might have been able to spread.

Stop reading that stuff. From where you are, you can make more of a difference than anywhere else, because there’s no one else who’s got the place where you fit in covered.

"Failure to participate fully in being leaves a hole that's precisely the size of [your] soul in the cultural landscape." - Jordan B. Peterson


Entertainment is great, and digesting something safe is far better than something with bad morals, right? Cheese curls are better than straight out poison. Sure. But watered-down stories with no real good or bad, or lesson, keep your mind filled, but they don’t instruct either. And being filled with meaningless stuff is a sure way of not growing character. (This is especially true for children when the growth is huge and the need for nourishment equals that.)

So, like chips, go ahead and eat them, but keep in to a minimum, with plenty of protein and supplements in between. Yeah, including the green things staring up at you from the corner of the plate.

The good book

Okay, so after my ranting on what a story shouldn’t be, let’s touch on what a solid, balanced tale should have.

Well… the opposite of what we just said. It should say something meaningful and not just ‘feel good’. But more than that, it’s important that the message isn’t giving you mixed signals on how a true good guy or bad guy should act.

Bad is bad. It can be darkly bad, but it is never inspiring and never wins the last battle.

And so good is always good. The protagonist might start out bad or partially so, it may (and should) cost him to win the evil in the end, but the person he becomes, or strives toward, should never have mixed morals. A slick-haired gunslinger with grit-his-teeth courage, but no chastity to speak of, for example.


Okay, let’s recap.

Stories are important because they get absorbed in ways probably far deeper than we realise, burrowing down to the foundations where your imagination and ideals get formed.

Eating bad morals can lead to stomach ache or worse, plus don’t eat the fluffy candyfloss when there’s lamb roast on the table.

Seeing the morals for what they are and refraining from the poisonous ones is a war that’s important for our soul’s well-being and for the people around us. It’s real. And the battles are won every time we scrap what’s unhealthy and go for the meaningful plots with sturdy ethics that don’t mix good and evil as ideals.

Let’s keep spreading the goodness.

Round-faced critters in wagon

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