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Phyllis is a fiction and nonfiction author in Los Angeles who blogs on history-related and book-related topics at her author website at and is also a digital marketer and content creator.


Trigger Warning

Many of us have favorite fictional book, film, or TV characters – figures who seem real to us and in whom we invest our ongoing attention. It is my belief that the actions of fictional characters can influence attitudes and behavior in real life. And because of this influence, fiction writers need to consider how they portray the actions of their characters.

To start with a simple example – I never portray my fictional characters as sliding down banisters. This is because many years ago my first cousin slid down a banister at a college football game and never walked on his own again. Yet I recently saw a major animated movie in which the main child character did indeed slide down a banister, which I fear will encourage real children to emulate this risky action. Note that sliding down the banister in the movie had nothing to do with the plot. It was simply someone’s idea of a cute action.

Most movies and TV shows today do not display characters smoking cigarettes unless a historical time period is featured. And many movies and TV shows do display characters wearing safety belts in cars. Jeers to those that show the main characters riding around without safety belts. Yet even in fiction writing we can be conscious of encouraging safety belt use and discouraging cigarette smoking. Imagine, for example, writing a romance scene where the woman or man cannot undo her or his safety belt in the heat of the moment. This action can add to the dramatic tension of the scene while promoting a safety issue.

Probably my biggest failure to date in the use of fiction to influence real life occurred in the early 1990s. I set off on a mission to get safer sex portrayal in movies and TV shows, believing that teens especially could be encouraged to take this issue seriously if their favorite actors did. I then hit several road blocks even when I gave examples of how easy it would be to include condom references without showing anyone actually putting on a condom.

While I mostly failed in this endeavor, I did have one mystery writer say she included a safer sex scene in one of her novels because of me. She said adding the scene actually provided an opportunity to reveal more about her main character.

Of course in action stories, spy stories, detective stories, etc. people are going to get killed – sometimes in rather awful ways. To be clear, I am NOT saying that these fictional scenes should not exist. What I am saying is that, within the parameters of actions by our fictional characters, we writers should consider how we are portraying risky behaviors.

There are also other ways that fictional character portrayal can inform real life. One important way is to create diverse characters. Women portrayed in “traditional” men’s roles and men portrayed in “traditional” women’s roles can help people visualize these roles in real life. And creating characters of diverse backgrounds is very important for fostering acceptance of people different than ourselves. Whether minor or major characters in your fiction, consider creating characters of Asian, Latino, Native American, African-American, Roma, or other backgrounds.

Another example of fiction informing real life: active duty military personnel and veterans are often missing from our experiences in real life. The U.S. is such a large country that it is relatively easy for people who have no personal connection to the military to not know any military personnel or veterans. Yet these military personnel play a very large role in protecting the U.S.

Thus, when writing fictional stories, is it possible to include active duty military personnel or veterans in the storyline to help increase awareness?

Or if you are creating a fictional character with combat-induced or non-combat-induced PTSD, is it possible to include information about PTSD that might help people in real life recognize PTSD symptoms in friends or loved ones?

One popular TV show that I admire for sharing information on military topics is NCIS. The show has dealt with real-life military issues and sometimes provides a web address or telephone number of a help line.

As fiction writers we do have influence over the knowledge and empathy of others. We can use this ability to help people in real life – and we should keep this opportunity in mind whenever we create fictional stories.

For an example of a fictional story that helps people learn more about PTSD, read for free on Wattpad the short story SOLOMON’S JUSTICE at – and then reflect if there is anyone you know who could benefit from this information.

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