Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Manifesto of Truth in Fiction

"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction...for fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it."
- G. K. Chesterton

Truth & Fiction

I have heard the comment that "Truth in Fiction" is an oxymoron—a statement which I usually take to be dismissive of the concept. Upon further consideration, I realized that it is an oxymoron, and that's the point. An oxymoron is when "...two words with opposing meanings are used together intentionally for effect," like "jumbo shrimp."

Truth in Fiction is possible for the same reason that "jumbo shrimp" is possible. Namely, the fact that there are multiple meanings to words in the English language. A shrimp is an animal which is known for being small, but since they are used for food, the larger the better. Hence the special addition of the word, "jumbo."

Truth in Fiction is not referring to the truth of events, but the truth of existence. Fiction allows the author to orchestrate the events and characters in a universe of his or her own design. Because it is not bound by the truth of events, fiction authors can forget that it must be bound by the truth of existence. To forget this is to produce works which are at best, unrelatible to the audience, and at worst, poisonous to the unsophisticated mind. When I say "unsophisticated," I am referring to those of us who are not familiar with the classics (of whatever medium), and therefore have no cultural reference for truth or its absense.

In my mind, any creator of media content has a profound duty to his audience to adhere to the truth of existence. Today's audiences tend to exhibit what Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed a "willing suspension of disbelief," which he presented as desirable. However, the consequence of building upon this tendency is that of a lowering of media standards. If the audience agrees to believe an author's tale, then the pressure is off to make it believable. And if the audience is willing to believe, then they are open to suggestion. Whether it is an effect achieved by the author, or a decision made by the audience for entertaiment's sake, the result is the same. The degree to which an individual suspends his disbelief is the degree to which he loses his defense against propaganda.

That being said, I feel I must clarify my criticism of suspending disbeliefs. First, the willing suspension of disbelief requires a decision to be willing, which means the individual is in control as long as he is aware and thinking. Next, there are at least two levels to any fictional story: the explicit narrative and the implicit meaning. I applaud anyone's ability to create and sell an explicit narrative that captivates, thrills, and intrigues the audience, even if that audience must suspend its disbelief to compensate for limitations in budget, medium, casting, and even technical acting or writing ability. Finally by contrast, I do not extend my approval of suspension to the depth of the implicit. Because the implicit is connected to the unconsious, a work of fiction which is not informed by the truth of existence can open a doorway past a person's rational disbelief. And that is the disbelief that keeps a person's sense of right and wrong safe from the corruption of outside interests.

Truth in Fiction requires the integrity of the author; his hunger to educate himself in the truth of existence, and his courage to stand by that truth as he understands it. It also requires the strength of character to admit where and when his understanding of the truth was flawed, and rectify his philosophy accordingly. Because this process builds a timeless foundation for the development of characters, the author can populate any world he chooses to imagine with said characters. The resulting story will transcend all its superficial flaws to become a classic.

Character & Characters

What makes you fall in love with a fictional person? What punches you in the gut when he suffers a great loss? What makes you want to get to your feet when he stands—blood dripping down his face, arrows protruding from his chest? What makes you shed a tear when he is cut down for the last time, having accomplished his mission? What makes the silence deafening as he chokes out his last words? Is it your suspended disbelief? No, it is "character."

Not a character, which is a collection of dialog and actions in a certain setting or circumstance, but the quality of "character" which is universal, belonging to all individuals real or imagined. Have you ever considered the relationship you have with the characters you love? Many of us would be ashamed to admit that some of our most reliable friends are imaginary. What have we learned from these characters? How have we become like them? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The only people we are more intimate with than our loved ones, is our loved authors and their characters.

Character is developed chiefly through association and interaction, and in reality, stories which are driven by difficult moral questions are interactive. A thinking person has a form of discussion with the authors by way of the characters' character. If you are thinking through your fiction, then you are making decisions as to which character traits to "side with"—a process that shapes your own self-awareness. If fiction is to force you to think for yourself, it must necessarily present you with alternatives that are in conflict with one another. Not only does that drive a dynamic "truthful" plot, but it challenges your beliefs in a way that requires you to know what you believe in order to defend it. A thinking person cannot defend against two opposing thoughts without realizing where he stands, even if he agrees with neither.

Heroes & Villains

The role of heroes and villains is to act as anchors or philosophical bookends. The contrast between these two types of characters is indicative of the philosophical spectrum of the narrative. As manifested in whole characters, the heroes and villains embody what we understand to be good and evil, respectively. In a truthful story, heroes are the type of people which embody the quality of character to which we aspire, and should be considered models to emulate. Villains embody the lack of character and the moral depravity which we abhor, and should serve as a reminder.

Heroes and villains are not to be confused with the roles of protagonists and antagonists, respectively. Depending on the perspective of the story, the author may choose to follow a villainous character as the main character (protagonist), while the heroes play a secondary opposing role (antagonist). The most noted manifestations of this are mobsters like Tony Soprano ("The Sopranos") whose family and childhood friends don't approve of what he does. In most other cases, the philosophical spectrum is narrowed to a focus on degrees of evil (good bad guys vs. bad bad guys). This perspective is merely a superficial twist of narrative convention, rather than a distortion of philosophy. Truth in Fiction is not concerned with this twist, it is only concerned with accuracy in the depiction of heroism, villainy, and their respective degrees. It is then up to the viewer to determine whether a character is a hero or villain through personal experience and prediction of that character's results.

Rarely, in my opinion, is there fiction which does not make this choice for the audience. Most fiction I have experienced makes a statement of introducing the hero. "Here he or she is! This person is who you should respect." The hero is cobbled together from an array of safe character traits which are manufactured to meet the current audience's approval. The villian is, by default, the person who is the antithesis to the hero. Often, this is a person characterized by superficially offensive traits (like smoking), or a penchant for antagonizing the hero (the bureaucrat).

Rare is the story that has the audacity to depict the details of true good and evil. Petty bickering and rank-pulling may drive moment to moment tension, but to be used as the only means of building long-term tension is lazy. Such practices either reveal the author's lack of regard for the audience's intelligence, or reveal a desire to alienate intelligent individuals. Moreover, the tendency for some viewers to accept the protagonist as the hero by default, has led to a third category—the anti-hero.

As I said, a story can follow a villain as its protagonist, but it must eventually become evident to the viewer (through truthful analysis) that the character is a villain. If the story shrouds the realistic consequences of the character's actions, making him look heroic when emulation of him in real life would lead to tragedy, then the story is a philosophical lie. This is how media creates anti-heroes in culture. It has been said that one can tell a culture by the heroes it keeps. If we use fiction to pose an ideology as a heroic character, then the viewers can be snowed into believing the ideology. But what ideology must be snuck past the viewers' conscious awareness? Only one that is knowingly false.

That being said, the basis of Truth in Fiction is to pose as heroic in fiction that which is heroic in reality. This can only be done through free association and open discussion. Ideas must compete for the highest level of truth, not the highest level of ideological pull. It is vital to the fitness of our thoughts and passions that fiction not be simply congenial to the human mind, as G.K. Chesterton said, but also be challenging to it. The strangeness of truth, I believe, is the very distinction that makes a story great. And when media creators realize that creating a classic is more lucrative in the long-run, less minds will be wasted on tired congeniality.

For more information on this topic see "The Origin [of Truth in Fiction]."

"Samuel Taylor Coleridge - The Major Works" : Poems and other works, including Biographia Literaria.
"Stranger than Fiction" : A film about a reclusive author whose gimmick is killing her main characters. What happens when she finds out her newest character is a real person?
"The Sopranos" : The story of mobster torn between one "family" and the other.

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