Novelists are liars.
Many fiction writers like to say we “lie for a living,” because we tell stories that didn’t really happen. We spin yarns from whole cloth, incorporating as many details of time and place as possible–sometimes even footnotes–to convince you that what you’re reading is true. We connect our stories to things you know to be true–historical events, scientific discoveries–to make it difficult for you to tease out fact from fiction.
Not only that, but we deliberately deceive you. We try to make you think the wrong person is the killer, or the wrong people are falling in love, or the rescue isn’t going to make it in time. We lead you down one path, then twist everything you thought you knew so it turns out differently than you expected.
And you love it.
The question is, why? Why do we enjoy stories about people that never existed in situations that never happened? Why do we relish the whiplash of a convincing red herring? The shock of an unexpected twist?
The answer, of course, is that the lies we tell are true. If fiction is told well, it conveys deeper truths: truths about what people are really like, how they’re different and how they’re the same, what makes them good or bad or brave or afraid or loving or cruel. Not only that, but it puts us behind the eyes of people we will never be: those of a different gender, a different race, a different nationality, class, age, education, religion, profession, or financial situation. The lies of fiction tell us the truth about the people around us: that despite our differences, you and I have a lot in common.
An unfortunate tribalism seems hardwired into the very core of humanity. We separate “us” from “them” as easy as breathing. My sports team’s fouls are aggressive play, while yours are intentional attempts to injure our players. My company bids fair prices, while yours intentionally underbids and hikes rates later. Your religion is ridiculous, your sexual preferences disgusting, your race has always hated us.
More than anything else, fiction gives us the opportunity to experience life as others experience it. If I read a story about a character unlike myself, then for a few hours I become that character. I see what she sees, feel what she feels. I know what’s it’s like to have that background, that pain, that longing, that relationship. This is where lies become true: when by reading, I understand more about what it’s like to be you than I did before.
The lies of fiction entertain, but they also accomplish something deeper. They train us to empathize with those around us and see the truth that each of us has a story to tell.
David Walton is the author of several books of lies, including the quantum physics murder mysteries Superposition and Supersymmetry. You can read more about his work at http://www.davidwaltonfiction.com.