Monday, 31 January 2011

To tell the truth

Many stories are told of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s journey to the Frogstar. Ten percent of them are ninety-five percent true, fourteen percent of them are sixty-five percent true, thirty-five percent of them are only five percent true, and all the rest of them are… told by Zaphod Beeblebrox.
Fans are great. They are the bread and butter of writers.  Where you have to sweat bullets trying to convince the casual reader to buy your book or read your story, the fan has already bought the brand and all you have to do is make sure that you don't disappoint him. Fans give the writer an audience that not only show tremendous devotion, but are often extremely knowledgeable about a particular genre and can be fierce critics. 

Unfortunately, they also tend to be very keen readers who like to milk every last drop of pleasure out of the text and this often manifests itself in weaving all sorts of conspiracy theories.  Did so and so really die or was it all a ruse?  Was the subplot all an illusion?  Maybe the waiter was really the detective.  Maybe the ghost of Hamlet's father was really Claudius.


In theatre, there's a thing about a decision by the director or the actors being supported by the text.  No, they characters aren't all librarians putting on a play.  Why? Because the text never mentions such a thing.  Queen Gertrude isn't a nine-foot tall Ubangi with a robot hand.  Why?  Because the text never mentions such a thing.  Hamlet isn't a homicidal maniac.  Why?  Because the text never mentions such a thing.   If you can't demonstrate that the script supports an idea, then leave it out–or hope that the author is safely dead.

The same thing goes for all fiction–at least, in the sense that all fiction follows an unspoken convention.  All fiction operates in a very circumscribed universe.  The number of people that a character interacts with is much smaller than most people do in real life.  Their activities are much simpler.  Time is compressed.  Compare the dialogue in a book against a real life conversation and fictional characters seem to gallop through  every meeting. 

This streamlined version of reality also applies to the truth.  In real life, we often have to operate on a very hazy standard of what constitute the truth and what doesn't.  We don't have time to verify every fact or every motive.  We have to act on insufficient or dubious information as we make provisional conclusions that we hope will be correct.  Did my mechanic tell me the truth about my car?  I hope so?  Did the bank clerk deposit my cash or just trouser it?  I'll have to act like he did.  Did my boss give me the right figures?  I hope so. 

In fiction, we don't have that luxury.  There isn't the time and we don't have the same sort of general knowledge in a piece of fiction that we have in real life.  It just isn't practical.   Instead, we operate on a very simple assumption:  Unless we are given a reason to think otherwise, we must assume that whatever we're told is true.  Is that the ghost of Hamlet's father?  Yes.  Why?  Because we've been told so and we have no reason to believe otherwise.  Blofeld tells us that a bottle contains a deadly poison.  Does it?  Until we learn otherwise, yes.  Now, that doesn't mean that we trust everything that every character says.  If an author tells you a source is unreliable, then it is.  Douglas Adams, for example, makes it clear that only an idiot would take anything Zaphod Beeblebrox says at face value.  We never trust anything about what the Joker says about his past because it's established that he always lies about that and never tells the same story twice running.

What this means is that the author has a gold-plated obligation to be honest with the reader.  Don't assume that a reader will also think that a statement is a lie unless you give him a reason to believe it to be one.  He will assume that it is true.  You, as the writer, set the rules of your world and it is your duty to set the limits in a fair and open manner.  That doesn't mean that every story must be one where all your plot cards are neatly laid out on the table.  You can create a web of lies, a world of mirrors where nothing is what it seems, or a situation that is a series of puzzles within puzzles like a frustrating set of maddening Russian dolls, but in order to do so you must establish that world and convince your reader that no one is to be trusted because the default position is that he should. 

Or am I lying?

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