How storytelling improved my life

JH Lillevik
9 min readOct 29, 2019

I have always been interested in stories. Even as a kid I would consume stories about Norse mythology and when I was 15, I got roped in by some friends into making some parody amateur films where we satirized stuff like Robin Hood, James Bond, etc. They were really unprofessional, but they made me sure of one thing, I wanted to work with stories in some capacity, and most likely film. How I would do that, was uncertain, but I had set a goal in life, albeit a difficult one.

The idea of working with stories, mostly in my head as an actor, was so alluring that I did not heed any warnings from my father of how difficult it would be. I had finally something that made sense out of all my dark thoughts and gave my life some meaning. Due to this, when I started studying film, I was excited and saw a much brighter future for myself than previously and some of my anxiety was also sedated by hanging out with people who had the same goals in life as me.

One of the major philosophies dominating our classes at the time was post-modernism. Being someone who had always been severely fascinated by heroes and the hero’s journey arch in its many iterations, the idea that nothing really fixed as far as messaging went, was a bit of a shock, but somehow it made sense to me. I was drawn into the idea that nothing mattered and I would almost use it as a tool to lord my new-found knowledge over others in my life.

My Problem

The problem was that I did not feel right about the whole thing and I would still write the same stories and be attracted to the same when I devoured stories. Ideas about the same thing would still flock to me and it would conflict with what I would consciously think. Ideals seemed like something for children and I was after all a more evolved being.

The loss of belief in the meaning of our stories made me more and more unsure about what I was doing. Slowly sent me into a spiral of writing something and then doubting what I had written was good, smart or original enough to be produced. I would start writing something, a screenplay, short story or novel and I would not believe in what I was doing. The box under my desk is still filled with projects and ideas that I had at that time that I never have done anything more with, other than just save them.

After a very good friend of mine died, I spiraled even further down and it took me a few years to actually finish something, but I could not find any joy in it. I was constantly doubting why I was doing it and finding faults in everything. This was making miserable and anxious. I had been pretty low in the past, thinking about suicide was almost a yearly occurrence for me, but this was something new. I was torturing myself, or I should say that my mind was torturing my body, by sending it into panic mode constantly.

In 2017 I was at the pinnacle of my depression and anxiety. Having always been anxious person, at least as I can remember it, I was used to constantly worrying about every little thing in my life, laying bed worrying about how small I was in comparison of the planet, then the solar system, galaxy and finally the universe. I loved learning new things about our existence, but in learning those things I would constantly allow my mind to think of things that were out there that could kill me. When I was a teenager, I discovered I could dampen those thoughts with alcohol and some other substances, and I would gain a respite from my thoughts. As you might think, this could not last.

Character analysis

There is a common thing in storytelling that the hero, or protagonist if you want to be technical, needs to delve all the way into hell before he makes it back to the surface. A good example of this is the arch of Dr. Strange in the 2016, where he goes into psychological spiral and is in a mental abyss, losing all that he has known before he finds a new way to climb out of hell through the mastery of his new powers. This hell is like with most people having a breakdown, not literal one, but a figurative one. It is pretty much how I felt at my lowest.

I had also at the time started to become fascinated with Jordan B. Peterson and philosophers as Nietzsche, as well as the existential psychologists, so I was feeling a great deal of internal turmoil.

After a week of being unable and unwilling to leave the house, I started to think about something that I had heard during one of Jordan B. Peterson’s lectures when he talked about when he took his son the cinema and what he would tell his son during the most intense scenes. “Watch the hero!” That got me thinking. What was it specifically about the heroes that I liked that made me like them?

Heroes and Villains

I would re-watch old films like Still Crazy (1999), maybe the first thing that might strike you as a heroic film, but there is something to the idea of a band getting a second chance, grasping that chance and getting past old conflicts that makes it very heroic. I also started re-reading books I had not thought about in years, simple hero’s journey stories, and I would absorb the stories to find what it was that made the characters enduring.

One of the major problems with the analysis of storytelling in these days is that it deals too much with external elements, like transposing the themes and groups within the story onto political in real life. There is a stereotype of the typical Harry Potter fan always casting what they do not like or is worried about as Deatheaters. While an author may draw inspiration from the environment around them, be it personal or political, I separate the two, I don’t always think that a valid way of looking at storytelling, and especially literature.

When you read, you are absorbing the characters, their conflicts, their flaws and strengths into yourself, into your mind. You are not just an observer; you are also a participant. I believe that what I write as a fantasy author, does not come alive until someone reads it. Now cynical or very practical driven minds might think that is not possible, and yes, the writing does not become physically alive, but it does become part of culture when someone else reads it and metaphysically awakens the life within it.

Thinking about that when you read might seem like something that would maybe take the enjoyment out of it, but I have found that when I do this, I start to see all the characters, especially the protagonist and the antagonist, in a different light. The hero and the “bad guy”, for lack of a better term, become sides of me. You can even have that in one character. Jorg Ancrath from the Broken Empire series is someone who would classically be cast as an antagonist, a boy who does not shy away from using all tactics to get to his goal.

This may not seem like a good thing for building a good person who can become a productive member of society, but the way the books are written, from the standpoint of Jorg as a first-person narrator, the conflicts become very clear and later books shows how he struggles with his humanity. He is almost the perfect representation of C.G. Jung’s shadow. In fact, Jorg taught me that sometimes you have to be clear about what you want. I may not like the tactics and the desire of Jorg, but he helped me get more in touch with the bad side of me and I do believe that knowing and recognizing the flaws of a “bad” character can help you become aware of when you are sliding into that behavior.

Just Entertainment?

I often hear the argument that it is just fiction and that it is just for entertainment, so why care so much about what stories we tell each other. As shown in the paragraphs above, I do not believe in this. Propagandists throughout history have known the fact that stories have enormous power for a long time and you can see now in Hollywood and similar institutions that some view storytelling as a way of social engineering and telling new truths.

If there is a question that really bothers you and you are a storyteller, you need to explore that in a story format. The important thing is that you do not leave the story incomplete and that there are areas that you have left unexplored. That can make the story feel like it is not complete and shallow. The antagonist needs to be whole and complete, because he represents something within you that works against you.

One of the reasons why that is most people have a dualistic existence. We are torn between the desire to be good and to be bad. I often think of it as the protagonist and the antagonist waring between each other within you. In Stephen Pressfield’s book on creativity, The War of Art, he discusses the force, which he names “resistance”, that works against creative people when they work towards a goal.

During the writing of this article I have many times taken unnecessary breaks because my mind has reminded me that maybe I should clean the area around my desk, or I should really watch that documentary about one of my idols so that I can model my life on them. Is this my internal antagonist working against me and diverting my heroic side from achieving my goals? That being said, it isn’t always a bad thing to take some time away from your work and focusing on something else, or even just relaxing with something.

Be a Hero

After my breakdown two years ago, I started to do things I had never done before, challenging myself for the first time in many years. I started doing yoga, not just to help my physical condition, but also to help my mind become more centered. I also started to get back to things I used to love doing, like hanging out with friends, talking about ideas and taking walks in the woods.

Now this may not sound very heroic, but when you have been at the level of thinking that you might die at any point, any action you take is heroic, and this is at the center of how I viewed the heroic tales I would love as a kid. I thought I could never be as heroic as the characters that I loved, but I forgot what those stories was trying tell me, and I do believe that we have all forgotten what the stories are telling us and why we tell each other stories.

I believe that the fact that we have forgotten why we tell each other stories and how to look at the stories we are being told or we read, has led to us losing a better way of looking at life. There is a general loss of meaning in society and culture. This has led to a fracturing because we are telling each other different stories.

Why Stories Matter

Just like language, stories are the glue that keeps our culture together, along with other factors, but we are a storytelling species. It helps us make sense of things and it provides us with road maps that will help us navigate in the future, so when the stories no longer match up with what we are telling each other, we can become chaotic and that is what I believed happened to me.

I also think that this is what happens to a lot of members of society at this point. There is no longer any focus on archetypes or the conflicts in stories being the result of a question asked by a storyteller, but it is now the focus of external factors that leads to anxiety as you then become convinced that everyone who exhibits certain qualities or opinions is an enemy.

I do not think it is helpful to look at stories as representations of external factors, mainly because I know where that leads. It leads to a life of heightened anxiety and depression as you can no longer see the road ahead of you. And to the people saying that it is just stories and asking me why I care so much, ask yourself this; Why do you care so much about changing them?