Make It A Good Lie – Versimilitude Bruce Holland Rogers
This is the fourth column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. For more of his columns, visit his author page.
One of the questions often asked of novelists and story writers is “How did you get your start?” The answer I most often give is, “I lied a lot as a child.” My answer sounds glib and usually gets a laugh, but I also mean it seriously. Fiction is a special case of lying. Moreover, fiction and lying both depend on what psychologists call “theory of mind.”
At its most basic, “theory of mind” refers to your awareness that the beliefs, intents, desires and knowledge in your own head are not necessarily the same as the beliefs, intents, desires and knowledge in the heads of others. At a more advance level, “theory of mind” refers to your ability to imagine what is happening in another’s mind.
We aren’t born with a theory of mind. We develop it, usually by about age four. Developmental psychologists have a test for theory of mind, the Sally-Anne test, that uses two dolls. The psychologist shows the child being tested a skit: Sally has a basket; Anne has a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket and then goes away, leaving her basket behind. Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it into her own box. Now Sally returns. The psychologist asks, “Where will Sally look for the marble?”
The child knows that the marble is in the box. Without any theory of mind, the child will conclude that what is known to him is known generally and will answer accordingly. Sally will look for the marble where it is, in the box.
Theory of mind, on the other hand, allows the child to imagine what it is like to be Sally. Sally doesn’t know that the marble was moved. She wasn’t there to see it. In Sally’s mind, the marble is still in the basket, and that is where the child will say Sally will look.
By age four, most children will expect Sally to look for the marble in the basket. They will understand that people have minds and that the contents of those minds depend on experience. They will also have discovered by age four that it is possible to manipulate the contents of another person’s mind. Most three-year-olds haven’t discovered lying. Most four-year-olds have caught on. If they are like me, they have begun the explore the uses of this almost magical power to put ideas into the heads of others.
As social animals, we depend on theory of mind to communicate, coordinate our actions, and anticipate what other people might do next. These are vital skills. Humans often cooperate with one another, but they can also be dangerously aggressive. Theory of mind helps us to know when another person is likely to be helpful and when he might attack.
Since knowing the minds of others matters so much, we like to practice doing it. That’s one of the pleasures we get from reading fiction. A story that is told in an objective, external point of view challenges the reader to imagine the mental states of characters, make inferences about their minds, and anticipate what they might do next. We make such inferences in reality, with real people, but fiction lets us practice such analysis without risk. In addition, stories told in various subjective viewpoints let us compare the external evidence of what characters say or do with the internal report of their thoughts. We get to see the minds that are hidden from us in reality.
But theory of mind matters to fiction at an even more fundamental level, which brings us back to lying. Fiction is a lie. There was no captain of a whaling ship called the Pequod. There are no Hogwarts-trained witches, much less any witch called Hermione Granger. However, readers volunteer to envision these people and their actions as if they were real. The writer’s task is to manipulate the mind of the reader so that the reader can hear Ahab rant or see Hermione cast a spell. Writing fiction is an exercise in shaping the contents of a reader’s mind.
There is, of course, a key distinction between fiction and other kinds of lies. Readers of fiction want to be deceived. They collaborate actively in believing the lie. Fiction is a cooperative fabrication, and the writer’s job is to make it easy for the reader to believe the untruth long enough to be entertained by it.
Let’s pause to consider a scenario using ordinary garden-variety lying. My mother wants to know what happened to the bag of semi-sweet chips she had bought for making cookies. I want to put a counter-factual reality into her head, a reality that does not involve me coming home from school, finding the chips, and making short work of the whole bag while watching television.
A good lie here will be one that does not contradict other things that my mother knows. I might say, “Jeff and his friend Eric were in the kitchen when I came home, and they were acting squirelly, as if they had something to hide. Then later they were jumping on the trampoline and eating something, but I don’t know if it was chocolate chips.”
I think I’ve told a good lie. My little brother was pretty transparent when he was misbehaving, so acting squirrelly sounds right. It’s an even better lie since I had the foresight to put the empty bag of chips in the trash can in Jeff’s room.
However, my mother knows Eric’s mother. They were talking just last week about Eric’s terrible allergy to chocolate. If he eats so much as one chocolate chip, he breaks out in hives, gets the shakes, and has to lie down for an hour. Yet there he is, visible through the kitchen window, playing in the driveway with my brother. No hives. No shakes.
I’m doomed. I lied, and it wasn’t a good lie. It did not have “verisimilitude,” or similarity to reality. All I can do, as my mother tells me about Eric’s allergy, is hope that she doesn’t discover the empty bag in my brother’s room. Now that I’m lying, every additional detail of my deception just deepens my shame.
(Note: No little brothers were harmed in the making of this scenario, and if they had been it would have been justifiable payback for something they had done to deserve it, anyway. Would I lie?)
The same principle applies in fiction. We lie, but we have to be able to get the lie over on the reader.
This should be easy though, right? The reader has agreed to cooperate. The reader knows that the narrative is a lie. We should be able to say anything at all!
Well, yes and no. Here’s where the reader’s cooperation gets complicated. The reader is willing to believe any consistent lie (or more accurately, to suspend disbelief) so long as we keep demonstrating that it’s a good lie and that we are good liars. If we are clumsy liars, then we effectively keep reminding the reader that we’re lying. Despite the reader’s best efforts to cooperate, we make it too hard.
Verisimilitude in fiction is not the same as verisimilitude in my mother’s kitchen. In my mother’s kitchen, my assertions are measured against the reality that my mother and I both live in. Even if one made the argument that people don’t experience exactly the same reality, my mother and I agree substantially on what is real, so I can’t propose another reality in which Frankenstein’s monster has moved in next door and then expect my lie to be tested against that alternative reality.
In fiction, though, the writer can change the rules of reality. In fact, no change in reality is out of bounds. A key event might be different in history, with the novel demonstrating how different the world was as a result. Magical incantations might work. Earth may be a vacation destination for extraterrestrials. All three of these realities could combine as one in the same novel.
Whatever the world, whether close to our consensus of “real reality” or very far from it, the reality of the novel is like the premise of an argument. It’s a given. There’s no arguing with it. The reader agrees that believing in this reality is the price of admission into the story, and if the reader is not willing to suspend disbelief to that extent, then the reader isn’t going to be able to enjoy the story.
However, once the reader commits to the world of the story, from that point forward the reader expects appropriate verisimilitude. As lies go, there may be one hell of a whopper at the heart of the story. But once the reader agrees to swallow that whopper, the writer’s job is to make all the little elaborations of the lie believable. The reader wants a convincing and detailed deception. True, the whole novel is counter-factual. True, none of the people in the story ever lived. But the writer’s job is to report accurately and what they would have said and done had they existed so that the reader can have the pleasure of believing in them.
This is why reader some readers will feel let down by a mystery in which the murderer killed with bullets made of ice shot from a conventional pistol. It wouldn’t work. And if the hero of a fantasy novel treats his horse like a car, riding it at full speed for long stretches without food, rest or water, the reader is justified in a groan of disappointment. That horse should be dead by now.
As a result, fiction writers have to do an amazing amount of fact checking and research. Before putting an Uzi into the hands of your spy, you’d better know what year this is and when the Uzi was invented. Not every reader will know the difference, but every reader who catches you in an error is discovering that you’re a bad liar. Even one such error can break the enchantment of your lie for a particular reader.
And yet… anything is possible in fiction, so long as the writer establishes the reality for it. Those ice bullets could work if they were made from an extraordinary form of ice, the characteristics of which the reader had known about long before the first ice bullet was fired. The fantasy horse could be magical so long as the nature of magical horses were revealed before the reader had cause to object.
Verisimilitude in fiction doesn’t mean that you create the illusion of reality. It means that you create the illusion of a reality.
Literary critics have sometimes fallen down convoluted rabbit holes of theory about verisimilitude, getting hung up on the relationship between fiction and reality. In some eras, the critics have made writers feel that they had to write prologues establishing the reality of characters and the relationship of the story to historical events. Nonsense. Readers don’t expect fiction to be true to truth. They expect it to be true to itself.
Readers know what a liar you are. That’s what they expect of you. They know you’re going to take over their mind a little to get them to see and hear things that never were. But they demand you to do such a good job that they start to trust you. So lie well. Give them sly deceits. Choose details that are exactly right. Make it easy to believe the story.
Prevaricate a little. Okay, a lot. And Don’t Get Caught.
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