Storyville: Living Vicariously Through Our Fiction

As authors, we are required to make up stories and entertain our audience. Why do people read? Why do we write? I think people read for a wide range of reasons, but one of them is to escape—to get away from their boring lives, their difficult lives, lives that are filled with hard work, suffering, and repetition. As authors, we seek out a lot of the same things. So let’s talk about that.

I call myself a maximalist, and that means I like a lot of heavy setting and sensory detail in my stories. I want my work to be immersive, an experience that will pull you in and let the world around you slip away. So when I write a story or novel, that setting and atmosphere adds a lot to the experience—for me, the author, for the reader, and for my characters. Do I really want to hike through cold, wet woods, and dig a grave? No, that sounds uncomfortable and exhausting, right? But it’s through these intense moments I’m able to experience a wide range of sensory details: all four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall. Without leaving the comfort of our couch, we can seek out the woods, the mountains, the prairie, and the desert, without getting bit, hurt, or abandoned. I’m not saying don’t seek out these experiences in the real world (do, for sure) but we all can’t get to Hawaii, Transylvania, or Mars.

Another aspect of fiction we can’t always experience in the real world involves our sexual fantasies. In my youth, I definitely got into a lot of trouble, with experimental girlfriends, underground clubs, you know—sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. But not everyone has that opportunity. Maybe it’s something as simple as the man or woman of your dreams—a childhood crush, the neighbor in the apartment across from you, or perhaps a celebrity. Maybe it’s something you’ve never had the courage to try out before—a fetish, such as bondage, sex toys, or the same sex. Maybe you have a partner that isn’t all that open—that threesome that might never happen. As authors we can tap into our own histories, for sure, but we can also embellish, expand, and write about what we wished had happened, the one that got away. These are quite often private, secret moments that we can’t share with anyone. I mean, take Fifty Shades of Grey. For a lot of readers (150 million!) that was something they were obviously missing in their lives, so who am I to tell them not to enjoy it? Have fun, nobody is getting hurt here. I mean, unless that’s your kink. And then be sure to use a safe word. Or so I’ve been told.

A different component of fiction that I think appeals to quite a lot of us is the idea of vengeance. I can’t even list the number of times some jerk has cut me off in traffic, almost causing an accident, but I’ve never followed them home and beat them up. That would be wrong. And while I have been in a few fights, and thrown abusive men off the bus for being racist pieces of garbage, I don’t really enjoy that. I’m a pacifist, but in those moments, I had to step in. All it takes is getting hit in the face ONCE to know how much it hurts. But in fiction, we can not only be the heroes we want to be, we can also dispense justice, no matter how dark and violent it gets. That’s the appeal of Dexter, right? He’s a killer, a serial killer, and he does some horrible things, disgusting acts that are extremely violent. But there is also the satisfaction of seeing WORSE people get their punishment—rapists and pedophiles, and other monsters. In the right story, vengeance is essential, and done right, it can be a very satisfying experience.

I think people also seek out roles and occupations in their fiction that they can’t find on their own. For some it may be as simple as seeing the world through the eyes of the opposite sex. For others, it can be a different race, religion, culture, or sexual orientation. Many also like to see what it's like to work a different job, either the dream they couldn’t make happen, or just an occupation that’s interesting—a cop, an astronaut, a dancer, a musician, a professional athlete, etc. I love doing research for my fiction, so if I get to spend some time studying what it means to be a soldier, or an anthropologist, or a cave diver—that’s all entertaining and exciting to me. And we get to live the best aspects of that life. I assume that digging in the hot sand for hours on end, gently brushing away sediment from fragile fossils, can actually get boring and quite uncomfortable after a while. What we really want is the adventure of the dig—the exploration, the mysteries that are revealed, and the excitement of what lies buried beneath the sand, deep in the crypt, hidden from the world for thousands (millions?) of years.

And then there is the supernatural. There is so much to intrigue us there. What is it like to be a vampire, werewolf, demon, wendigo, or zombie? What might it feel like to be an alien, or discover alien life on a different planet? In fantasy and science fiction so much is invented for our amusement, education, and wonder—entire worlds, new species, different cultures, and epic adventures. In horror we get to study monsters without putting ourselves at risk, feel what it is like to go insane, to be possessed, to stare into the abyss, and try to decipher the unknowable. We want to know what happens after death, and whether we come back, and whether other planes exist. We are curious creatures, and there is so much to explore. We seek out magic, wonder, mystery, and superstition. We study myths, legends, and stories that have been handed down from generation to generation. There is so much out there we don’t understand, and for a few pages, or hours, or weeks, we can try to understand the unknown.

As authors, we tap into elements that hold our attention. We put our fantasies and fears on the page, and then ask the reader to come along for the ride. Writers want to exorcise their demons, yes, speak to issues and topics that are compelling and current. But they also seek out adventure, excitement, and hostile situations—just to see what happens. In some ways, we are gods, building these worlds, staging these plays. And in other ways, we are merely tapping into our own personal struggles, hopes, and curiosities. Either way, we have the opportunity to live a life that may otherwise be out of our reach, to vicariously experience a wide range of emotions, situations, and settings. And that’s pretty cool.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of eight books—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, Spontaneous Human Combustion (Turner Publishing), and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 175 stories in print include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), Lightspeed, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Shallow Creek, The Seven Deadliest, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), PRISMS, Pantheon, and Shivers VI. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker (twice), Shirley Jackson, Thriller, and Audie awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor. He was the Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine. For more information visit or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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