Permit me to rant: fiction consists of lies that a writer makes up.
The characters don’t really exist. The things they do aren’t real. To quote the usual boilerplate, “All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”
Of course, real people and events are occasionally depicted in fiction, especially historical fiction…but even then, it’s a trick.
It’s like when a stage magician lets a random member of the audience examine a deck of cards to make sure the cards are ordinary. It helps make the act more convincing. When a piece of fiction includes people who actually existed and events that really truly happened, it’s a psychological ploy to make readers more likely to swallow the stuff that’s complete make-believe.
It’s a good trick that writers use all the time. In my most recent books, I use actual everyday things like Wikipedia and mobile phones to create a setting that seems real and convincing…so that when I introduce vampires and superheroes, the world still retains a modicum of believability.
But it’s all made up.
I’m writing this rant because I read an essay on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The Turn of the Screw may or may not be a ghost story. Perhaps the ghosts are real; perhaps they’re just delusions in the mind of an unreliable narrator. The essay I was reading spent a great deal of time on this question, even though there’s a blatantly obvious answer.
Spoiler alert: the ghosts weren’t real. Neither was the unreliable narrator. Neither was anyone else in the story. It’s fiction. It’s all made up.
Henry James clearly wanted to create ambiguity. He positioned the story right on the boundary line between yes and no. He did a good job of splitting the difference, and we can admire the skill that he shows.
But to me, asking if the ghosts are real is like asking if Penn and Teller can really catch bullets in their teeth.
They can’t. It’s a trick. It can be an engaging trick, skillfully done and winningly performed. While it’s happening, you can let yourself believe it’s real…the same way you can let yourself believe a good story is real while you’re reading it. You can even let yourself get carried away by a story, getting caught up with the characters and coming away with deep emotions or even lessons from the tale.
But it’s still a trick. If a writer is good, it’s a meaningful and affecting trick. But fiction is still fictitious. Let’s not lose sight of that.