Human beings mythologize, tell half-truths, and outright lie. We mold the details of our lives to fit the stories we tell in the same way we fill in the missing spot in our vision. We have only so much brain power, after all: we can’t properly evaluate all the data we receive. Instead, we classify, set aside, and move on. Faced with a complex world, we ignore the parts that don’t fit our worldview, and exaggerate those that do. This is where the writer steps in – with a straw hat, barker’s jacket, and a firm hand on our back, ushering us into the big top of fiction, promising us that we’re going to see something true. By the time we stumble out – eyes glassy and senses frayed – we have, or we think we have – and really, is there much of a difference?
The Fictional Dream
John Gardner described the “fictional dream” as an alternate reality created by the writer, in which “the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols.” It’s this dream that the reader experiences, and the better the writer does at building it, the more real it seems. With each mistake the writer makes, however, the reader becomes that much more likely to stir, wake, and realize that what they thought was real was only sleight of hand.
Ari Marmell, writing for SF Signal on How to Successfully Create Suspension of Disbelief, says that rather than rigid accuracy, a writer (especially a fantasy author) needs “A foundation of SHARED EXPECTATION. It has to be believable, it doesn’t have to be RIGHT.” This makes sense in the context of an endeavor that is less about something concrete, and more about a sense of reality created by the writer and gifted to the reader. Both Gardner and Marmell are talking about a suspension of disbelief that, fashioned out of expectations, details, character and consistency, opens the door to an alternate universe.
I’d argue, though, that the writer’s task is made easier by humanity’s already loose grasp on reality. Why should it be hard to create a fictional dream for us, when we each create our own, every day?
We Believe What We Want to Believe
Norman Holland, writing for Scientific American, says that when we read a story or watch a film, we intuitively know that we lack the power to change the narrative. Because of that, “the brain economizes. we turn off the neural processes that tell us we might need to do something about what we are seeing. The prefrontal cortex does not try to assess the reality of what we are seeing, nor does it trigger motor impulses.” In other words, when confronted with a reality that we can’t change, our brain stops bothering to determine what’s real or what isn’t.
I would elevate this idea to a general rule: when human beings can’t change something, the reality of it becomes less important to them than how it fits into their own, personal narrative. That is, when we see ourselves as unable to affect a situation – be it political, religious, or personal – we tend to stop assessing data, and instead fall back on believing what we want to believe. What is our evolutionary stake, after all, in worrying about what we can’t change? Better to believe something that fits our existing worldview, and press on.
Most of us would be shocked, I suspect, if we could step outside of our personal fictions and see ourselves as we really are. Every time we open our mouths, we make something up. We shift our identities depending on how we want to be seen or how we want to see ourselves, and our minds fill in the missing bits of reality with whatever we need to keep the fiction intact.
All of this delusion doesn’t mean that we should give up on critical thinking: I, for one, intend to go down swinging. It just means that we shouldn’t set our expectations too high, when we go looking for truth. It also means that we’re easy marks for politicians, grifters, and storytellers.
It’s a Liar’s Game to Lose
The writer’s job is to weave a tapestry rich enough to create a fictional dream, but the moment a reader latches on to the narrative, that tenuous grip on reality kicks in, and missing or questionable bits are filled in as required. It isn’t necessary for the writer to create reality – reality is something that we’re used to making up as we go along. The writer need only craft a vivid suggestion of reality: human nature does the rest.
Some readers will always be on the hunt for mistakes, especially when an author takes on more complex or sensitive tasks, like culture or gender or sex – but most readers will take the world the writer creates at face value. Each of us, after all, has one story that we tell ourselves, another that we tell those we love, a third for those we work with, and a fourth to show the world – and all of them are fluid. The novelist might offer us a strange, new reality to explore, but it takes little effort for us to accept it: it’s just one more world, after all. If we’re easy to tell stories to, it’s because our lives are little more than complex patchworks of half-truths, exaggerations, omissions, and lies.