It occurred to me recently that when we create fiction, we are at great pains to weave the most elaborate of lies, whether the fabrication exists transiently in the embodiment of a short story, or as a prolonged and complex experience as in a novel.
This notion struck me as I was constructing a story based around a very strong childhood memory. The setting was real, the feelings which were conveyed in the story were a true reflection of how I recalled them and, to a great extent, the characters had actually existed. These were the elements of truth. Many of the events had happened, too, but at some point, I deviously veered away from reality and the account became not only dishonest, but worse, convincing. It had seamlessly morphed into a lie-slash-story, rather than a straggle-ended memory. But I felt deceitful. It was credible.
The basic untruth – a nugget of an idea – that is manufactured by us, is subsequently developed into a multi-faceted falsehood as the story unfolds, or, to look at it another way, lies beget lies beget lies; we consciously pepper and layer the original falsehood with convincing details of setting, and events so realistic, and character traits so believable, that the reader is lured in. Duped. Taken for the proverbial ride. To excel in the craft of deception is what we strive to do.
Congratulations! You’ve tricked ’em again!
The effect of the lie upon the reader can transcend far beyond the end of a book if a deep enough impression is made upon them. That our lies can elicit emotions makes me a little uneasy. I have always regarded myself as the pinnacle of honesty. That we have the power to trick through words, however, makes our honesty questionable, perhaps. Yet, it’s fine to raise the spirits and induce laughter; jokes are lies, after all.
But what if the story is sad?
We are manipulating the emotions and expectations of our readers… because we can. Yes, ostensibly they know that the words we give them are conveying a fictitious world, complete with inhabitants, but, nevertheless, regardless of this acknowledgement, their response can be intense. When characters in whom they have invested get hurt, or die, readers can experience a degree of trauma. I have cried at books – The Book Thief, Me Before You, The Time Traveller’s Wife. Having unwittingly become immersed in the lie, I fail to realise that I am crying for people who have never existed.
In all honesty, morality doesn’t come into it. This has just been an example of how viewpoints can become askew if you think about things too much. By dint of their function as readers of fiction, there is a tacit agreement that they are willing to be duped and led headlong into a lie, the bigger the better.
But it does beg the question of whether in a court of law we would get away with it.
I think I could.