All fiction is fantasy. And fantasies, in the right form, are contagious.
The creative prompt may originate in the mind of a single author but, assuming they do a good job, their vision becomes a shared dream – literally bought into by eager, willing readers.
What’s odd is that even non-fiction is like this. It doesn’t matter if a piece is built around hard facts or proven events; initially, their interpretation exists in the mind of the author alone. Written content is subjective and, therefore, whether for entertainment or edification, it can never constitute much more than a personal ‘pitch’. Once it’s been read, however, it can spread like a virus. Perhaps this makes non-fiction the greatest fiction of all.
Organised faiths and belief systems are based on equally subjective views of reality, which are always – no surprises – written in books. It’s as though putting a thing in writing concretises it. We believe in the written word. And yet, in even the most stringently precise legal document, those same words are open to interpretation and misunderstanding. Want to be well-paid for your time? You could do worse than train as a professional debater of opinion – or lawyer, as we sometimes call them. The words themselves aren’t slippery and untrustworthy, the trouble is we don’t all read them in the same way.
None of this is to say that people are stupid. We know that just because a thing is written doesn’t make it right. However, and perhaps more relevantly, I suspect it does make it real. You may, for example, disagree with what I’m suggesting in these passages and have reason, or even evidence, to refute it. If so, these words are already real enough to create opposition and debate.
As a writer, you take an idea, a character, a predicament, a theme and you craft a tale to the best of your ability. Like a sculptor, you chip away all the unnecessary parts until you have a form that pleases you. So far, all this behind-closed-doors activity is relatively safe. But the very moment someone else sees this thing you’ve made, it becomes real to them. And the greater the number of people that see it, the more real and tangible it becomes.
Pretty terrifying really; especially if what you’ve written is both popular and dangerous. Creating a mythology within a story is no different. As the author, you simply have to be convinced of an idea’s power, appeal and innate beauty; convinced enough to make fiction of it.
For me, putting such an idea – or any idea – into words isn’t a conscious process. In many ways, I wish it was. Yes, my eyes are open and I’m voluntarily moving my fingers over the keyboard but I have no idea what will appear. It would be great to sit down, write a nice list and have a handy diagram or roadmap for any aspect of my fiction. Instead, I have to make do with allowing things to rise into conscious view by writing about them. I have to make them real for myself first.
When all the word-wrangling, editing and proofing is done, the fiction is revealed to a readership. Whether small or large in number, they share in your fantasy and it becomes real. They may hate it, love it – or worse, be disinterested – but your work will live or die by their equally real response.
To me, not only is every fiction a fantasy, every story is a myth. We may believe, as writers, that we ‘make them up’ but I’m not sure we do. I’m beginning to think that myths exist because people exist and that all authors do is find ways to access them. By bringing story and myth to the world through the written word, we create, for good or ill, a mass hallucination. If it is an entertaining story, it will stay in the mind of readers with strong emotional associations, as though it is an actual memory.
It’s astonishing how powerful words can be. And yet, no words ever written in any book constitute anything more than a narrow view of the world, glimpsed from a single tiny window.
Thanks to Caroline Lambe for her helping in arranging this feature