Lies fiction tells us
As a writer of fantasy and a reader of everything under the sun, I think it goes without saying that I love fiction. And not only in books — I'm a sucker for movies too. In short, stories rule. But there's also no denying that they give us a pretty skewed picture of how the world works. And so, as a public service to fiction lovers everywhere, I give you … lies fiction tells us.
1. It will be easy to get what you want
My inspiration for this list came from an article by David Wong, author of John Dies at the End. In it, he observes that training montages and their ilk in films give us a false impression of how difficult it is to achieve anything. You start out with someone who's rubbish at something, insert a three-minute series of clips set to upbeat music, and bam! They're the world champion. Which means that anyone who sets out to do something and finds that it requires actual work winds up disappointed.
Thinking about this eminently valid point, I came to the conclusion that the problem actually goes deeper. The problem is narrative itself. Because although books and films may be brilliant at getting us into the heads of their protagonists, evoking what it's like to experience all kinds of extreme emotions and situations, one thing they're not very good at bringing alive is mind-numbingly dull repetition. A narrative, by its very nature, picks and chooses the key incidents that make up a coherent story. Everyday details — by which I mean the trivial stuff we literally do every day — are left out.
Of course that's the right thing to do, narratively speaking: if a book included every last thing its protagonist did then it would take as long to read as it would to actually live. But it means that processes like learning to be a chess grand master or bringing up a child, both of which inherently consist of doing the same damn tasks over and over and over, can never fully be represented in fiction. One or even a couple of instances of those tasks, yes, but in such cases the real experience comes from the cumulative effect of thousands of repeats. So basically, in contravention of the main tenet of modern fiction, this kind of thing can only really be told; it can't be shown. No wonder that when we walk away from the cinema, it's with the conviction that we too could become a world-class wrestler/musician/Jedi after five minutes' practice.
This lie is closely related to the more specific 'anything is possible if you believe in yourself', which conveniently ignores the rather large part played by talent and hard work — and brings me nicely to …
2. You will always get what you want
This is an even more fundamental issue than the last one. Because regardless of how easy or hard it is, fiction tells us that eventually We Will Succeed. Again, this is a problem built in to basic narrative convention. Most books and films have a protagonist. And most protagonists succeed. If they didn't, they wouldn't be the protagonist. No-one's interested in the story of the guy who didn't blow up the Death Star or the girl who didn't win the Hunger Games.
Of course, the problem with this from a real-life point of view is that we all think we're the protagonist. Our lives are being narrated from our own first-person viewpoint, so naturally we think we're bound to succeed in the end — 'cos that's what protagonists do. Sadly, however, as far as the universe is concerned, most of us are really just bit players. In the vast list of credits at the end of time, we'll appear as 'person in crowd, number 6 billion'.
Not only that, but life doesn't conform to a tidy narrative structure. So chances are, even if you do get what you want, that won't be the conclusion of your story. You'll get to experience the bit after THE END, where you trip over a printer cable and break your neck: a fate that doesn't even have the grace to be ironic/teach a moral lesson/say something profound about humanity.
And talking of moral lessons …
3. A near-tragedy can reform you overnight
This is a fictional staple. You know how it goes: a power-hungry city type nearly loses his family and — realising there's more to life than money — promptly quits his job to become a stay-at-home dad. Or a selfish hedonist receives devastating news of her brother's illness and instantly becomes a better person, dedicating her life to his care.
I'm not saying this kind of thing can't happen. But the truth is, change like this is rare. No single moment of revelation, however shocking or eye-opening, can balance out an entire lifetime of being the world's biggest bitch. What really tends to happen is that a person experiences the epiphany, resolves to be better, and keeps it up for a couple of days before gradually regressing into old habits. Because, let's face it, improving oneself is hard. And if you're the kind of person who's allowed yourself to get away with being ruthless or vindictive or self-obsessed for years then it's hardly going to be as easy as a snap of the fingers to change.
Yes, these 'defining moments' can cause us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, but there's still a helluva lot of work to do after that … which brings us back to Lie 1.
4. Creepy, obsessive and/or borderline stalker-ish behaviour is the way to win a heart
I can't help but think of the scene in Twilight where Edward freely confesses to Bella that he creeps into her room every night to watch her sleep. This is apparently romantic and not the kind of psychotic behaviour that should have any sensible girl straight on the phone to the police.
Fiction really doesn't do anyone any favours here. In real life, constantly pursuing someone even after they've said no is harrassment, not endearing dedication. Breaking into someone's apartment to strew it with flowers is less of a grand romantic gesture than a criminal offence. And contrary to the plot of almost every rom-com I can think of, dating someone because (a) you're a journalist writing an article or (b) you've made a bet with your friends that you can turn an ugly duckling into a swan is not going to end in a happy, long-term relationship.
Oh, and unless you're a class nerd who also happens to be the protagonist of a second-rate movie, you're not going to end up with the hottest, most popular kid in school. Deal with it.
5. Babies sleep all the time
Yeah. I got screwed over by that one.
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