Thursday, January 23, 2014
Fiction is a Shadow
All fiction is a shadow of real life.
This sounds ridiculous on first glimpse. After all, a sizeable portion of fiction involves elements that are very much unreal. Stuff like talking animals, magic, curses, faster than light speed capable starships and other such things are not elements you'll find in real life. That being true, how can a piece of fiction that involves such things be connected to real life at all, much less being a shadow of it.
For that matter, most fiction seems so much larger than real life. Things are so much grander. Even in stories of a small scale and personal nature, fiction has a way of seeming to be so much more visceral and overwhelming than real life.
And yet, this is the truth. Fiction really is a shadow of real life.
Starting with the second point, characters, no matter how fleshed out they seem, are characters not people. Scenes are scenes not actual events. A setting is a mental construct not a location. As writers we try to give quirks to these things and sometimes we talk about characters writing themselves, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot adequately reproduce the roll of memories and years that a real person, place or thing would have experienced. Nor can we accurately relate the layers of complexity, or even complication, that a real event occurs with.
A good character is a sort highlight reel of a life. Select events are chosen and revealed while others are implied and left to the imagination of the reader. It isn't possible to fit the full life of even a ten year old child into a text format since they have literally ten years of information to relate. Stories only relate facts and histories that are relevant to the story at large. If the character is well written, they'll likely be more fleshed out within the mind of the reader and writer but the character on the page is just that highlight reel.
The same can be said of locations and events within a story. It is impossible to relate all the existant facts about a location or a situation without burying the story in extensive minutia. In addition, real life has no obligation for its developments to be either foreseeable or sensical. Fiction is imminently more predictable.
In this manner fiction is a shadow. It is a silhouette, an outline can suggest form and function. Sometimes it can be distorted by its surroundings, but it remains an imitation of the real thing.
Which brings us to the matter of the unreal elements of fantasy, science fiction and science fantasy. How do these represent real life? Well, the truth of the matter is that sometimes the fantasy aspects metaphorically represent some real life occurrence, but just as often they act as a layer of filter between the reader and what's happening in the story. And then there's the time that the fantasy element is there just at the whim of the author. Regardless of the author's reason for having a fantasy element, the majority of a good story tends to happen in the complexities of character choice and interaction.
There's tons of writing out there about how a particular element might be a representing a particular physical or social phenomena. The truth is that there is no one right way to read such things. How a metaphor is interpreted is heavily dependent upon factors in the current reader. These factors are also not static. They change over time as the person doing the interpreting changes. Something that had one meaning to them may well change for them later on due to experiences in real life. That said most people who share a culture also share enough similarities that one or two "correct" interpretations of the author's metaphors are accepted by the general readership. Note also that the author does not even have to have intended any deeper meaning for someone to find one. Meaning is imparted by the reader and even the most whimsical or simplistic tail can have a heavy impact on a person.
A good example of fantasy elements as metaphor is the Marvel universe mutant situation. Mutants in Marvel are a deliberate metaphor for racism, intolerance and the oppression of minorities. It is a bit more palatable to have someone ranting and raving about a fictional ethnic group than a real one. Likewise, the story can be taken as a metaphor for things like how family is a concept that extends past blood ties.
Which comes to the fantasy as a filter. In the old Saturday morning adventure cartoons, there were often episodes where one or more of the good guys were captured and taken to a secret headquarters where they were subjected to some pseudo science or magical procedure to either control their mind or else physically transform them into something the bad guy finds useful. Such assaults are outside of our framework of understanding. We have to take the time to analyze them in order to fit them into our interpretation of events. When that happens, we dilute some of the emotional content and a scene that is essentially torture becomes an adventure of daring do.
Looking at Legion from my own stories, and I'm aware she's not had a major presence in DB's original reworking yet, we can see this in action.
Legion is a psychic woman with super science biology skills up to and including the ability to mass produce cloned daughters. She also has a tendency to hollow out her daughters' minds and forces her soul down their throats basically Agent Smithing them.
On its face it seems ridiculous that this can at all represent real life, and I will admit I didn't really think of any such metaphor when I created her. But compare her to the stereotypical crazy beauty pageant mother who has a daughter whom she does her best to craft into what she considers to be the perfect child. The real life mother might not have psychic abilities or super science, but there is no doubt that she is still engaging in a campaign of identity destruction on her own daughter. The mass of clones, the psychic abilities and the like add a touch of unreality that allows us to view the situation with a touch of distance that makes things more bearable. It provides us with an excuse to say "this can't really happen.
Another frequent example of this I make is Star Wars.
Do we have superpowered warriors with laser swords in real life? No.
Do we have broken families and siblings split by adoption who've never known each other? Yes.
Do we have absentee, abusive parents who sometimes only come forward when their long lost child has something they want? Yes.
Can emotionally weak people be so politically and physically dangerous as Darth Vader? Definitely yes.
Which leaves again back where we started: fiction is a shadow of real life. When fiction seems larger than life, it's because you're looking at a distorted and stretched shadow on a wall or floor somewhere. Real life is infinitely more varied and complex, even without things like ghosts, superpowers and magic.
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