|This guy couldn't care less if you think he's real.|
He's going through some stuff right now.
Image description: dragon perched on a mountain spire.
By Arielle K Harris
“I don’t read fiction,” someone once said to me, unwisely. “I like to read things that are real.”
That’s bullshit, I thought, but I smiled and my chin made a movement that could have been a nod or maybe just some kind of involuntary nervous tick. Either way I must have seemed harmless enough as I wrestled to keep my socially inappropriate rant to myself, and successfully avoided alienating said person. I think I’m making progress in knowing how to talk to people. (It seems like the key is not saying 75% of what I’d like to say, and then heavily editing the other 25%.)
Real. It’s a term which I find unhelpful at the best of times. What is reality if not perception? What is perception if not totally and utterly subjective? So why on earth do people make a point of reality, as if it were some objective timeline of events totally unaffected by outside influences? Your non-fiction books are no more inherently trustworthy than my fictions. Let’s not even begin to discuss the heartrending truths found in fantasy.
In fiction, I can explore my thoughts, my experiences (both factual and speculative) and fully actualize my wholly subjective version of reality through my characters. I’ll write their human flaws, their triumphs and heartbreaks. Maybe it’s set on the moon, or during the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099, or in the land of Fythelm of The Twinned Oaks. It changes nothing about the reality of the human experience. (Unless of course the characters aren’t actually human at all but in that case you just get to learn how Martians or Fythemians experience the world. And sometimes the best way to discuss the complexities of humanity is by seeing it through the eyes of an outsider, or by the foil of the inhuman.)
I’ve told an utterly made up, fictionalized, perhaps fantastic story, and I own that it’s not fact. But it’s a true story, and it’s real. Real because I experienced it through the writing process, it’s part of me, and real for my readers because they experienced it themselves through the telepathy of my words.
Writing is telepathy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I have a thought and by writing that thought down you now have that same thought in your head, even though we never exchanged a single word.
I just made you think of cheese.
Through this intimate thought-sharing process we call reading, there’s a further unspoken communication between the author and the reader which almost bypasses word and thought altogether. It can be summed up in the following exchange:
Author: I know, I know, but just trust me on this.
There’s a quote I’ve always loved by Ursula K Le Guin, from her essay “Introduction to the Left Hand of Darkness” in which she writes:
In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is a nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little.
I’d prefer the word “nonsense” be changed to “factual” but the message is true regardless.
The reader isn’t expected to believe that it’s a factual story in genre (how I loathe that terrible word!) and fiction writing. The author isn’t asking the reader to believe that dragons exist on earth today or have ever existed here or anywhere else. But they’re asking the reader to believe that in this story set on the ninth planet from the star in the Herak’n system that dragons exist and that this one right now in this moment is having an identity crisis. Because that crisis is written so profoundly, so harrowingly real, the reader believes it.
This can be a true story because maybe the author has gone through their own identity crisis that they can tell through the narrative of a dragon on an alien planet. Or perhaps they can imagine a dragon identity crisis without personal experience of either identity crises or dragons or alien planets and can internalize that conflict within themselves. The success of either path is purely down to good writing, and upholding the trust of the reader who desperately wants to believe their story. And maybe that reader will never look up at the night sky quite the same again.
As Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
And after all, what a waste of literary magic if the only worlds you get to visit through an author’s mind is the one you already live in?
Arielle K Harris is the author of the novel Bestial as well as the ridiculous steampunk time travel drama short story The Adventurous Time Adventures of Doctor When. She is responsible for one very opinionated toddler as well as a writer, poet, falconer, knitter of many half-finished scarves, drinker of tea, enthusiast for wine and sometimes has been known to have wild birds in her spare room.
She can be found online at her own website: www.ariellekharris.com as well as on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ariellekharris/ and her published work can be found on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/author/ariellekharris
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