Right up front, let me just state that I have no intention to make this a political post. I want to talk about lying as it relates to my life and writing, and not talk about Trump. Even though it would be so easy to talk about the Liar in Chief, I want to keep this topic positive and constructive.
Besides, Trump is a terrible liar. To writers of fiction, you have to be great at lying.
In Steven King’s On Writing, one of the major points he makes is that writers should strive to tell the truth. What he means is that what we write should ring true, and we shouldn’t be lazy or cowardly. If in the course of your story your main character would pull the trigger, jump out a window, or set fire to a building, then you must let them shoot, defenestrate, or commit arson. If they would say “shit!” and not “poop!” then you must let them use profanity. The idea of truth in this sense is being true to the spirit of the characters and the story.
But unless you’re writing a memoir or non-fiction, your characters aren’t real. The setting might be based on a real place, but it’s still the land of make believe. Perhaps the events that transpire in your story are drawn from the memory of real life events. But as soon as you started putting them on paper, they became fantasy.
The fiction writer is playing make believe. They’re having wakeful dreams, lucid visions blossoming under the gaze of their mind’s eye. While having such a fit, they flail at a keyboard or scrape a writing instrument across a page, putting their hallucinations into a permanent form. Or maybe they go off in the woods and talk to themselves, recording their ramblings until they can be transposed later.
I can dress it up a hundred different ways, but the truth is that the writer is engaged in artful lying. If they’re really good, their lies will transport the reader to a completely different place, with characters that never existed, except in the shared story between creator and consumer.
Who cares, though, right? What difference does it make?
I care. To me, it’s more than just semantics. I believe that the world is pushed and pulled by the words of writers, and there is value in being aware of what’s going on.
Whether it is a book, a movie, a political speech, or an advertisement, there are writers involved, crafting messages that will sell something. Usually they’re selling an idea. Almost always, that idea is a work of fiction. Perhaps it’s just a small lie, but even an embellishment is still a deviation of the truth.
Our culture is saturated with lies. Marketing. Politics. If I were feeling particularly blasphemous, I might throw in Religion. Behind all of it, there are writers making the lies as believable as possible.
So how does the writer do it? How do writers deceive the whole world in all of these different areas?
Sometimes it starts with a grain of truth. You draw on a memory that is related to the fiction and focus on the details. Maybe you’ve known someone like the character you’re trying to create. Maybe the setting is reminiscent of some place you liked to play as a child. Often, a simple truth can be the snowflake that starts rolling down the hill, growing as it moves, gathering all of the special lies that stick to it until in the end, it is unrecognizable from how it began.
Whether the writer starts with a truth or not, they have to commit. They have to see the vision and believe it. The writer is the first person that must be fooled by the lie. If they do not believe it, no one else will.
Like other forms of lying, the writer’s tale can come apart in the details. It’s important for the writer to keep track of those details that the reader will latch onto and pick at. If you present a character as being left handed and bald as an egg shell, then they better stay left handed and hairless unless you have a reason for the change. Inconsistencies give the game away.
Like a stage magician, the writer may have to use obfuscation or distraction to keep the reader from digging at details you’re unprepared for. If you’re building a space station in your story that relies on centrifugal force for gravity, you either need to do the math and figure it all out in advance, or you need to have an airlock explode as soon as one of the characters start to ask how it all works.
A good writer is a great liar. Without that skill, who would believe that a race of short, furry footed people would trek across a barren land to throw a magical ring into a pit of fire? Who would believe that a farm boy from a desert planet would turn out to be the offspring of the Empire’s chief mass murderer, and that they would face off with swords made of plasma? Without the art of the lie, the stories we embrace fall apart.