Human beings are extremely gullible.
I know this because I make a living trading on that gullibility.
Technically, I’m a fiction novelologist, but that’s just a fancy way of saying I lie for a living. I make stuff up, create characters that have never existed, invent situations that are purely fantasy, and if I do it right, the reader will go along with it, even knowing it’s all artifice, smoke and shadows. The only reason I’m not considered a liar is because it’s clearly established from the beginning that I am going to tell you lies, but those lies are fun and enticing and somehow rewarding enough you don’t mind.
Perhaps gullibility is the wrong word. Gullibility implies stupidity. Or at least naivety. It assumes that the gullible are dumb because they simply don’t know better or are simply incapable of recognizing deception. It’s a loaded word with too much negative baggage. So let’s abandon it for something less inherently insulting.
Let’s say humans are fanciful instead, prone to flights of fancy, eager to believe anything that appeals to them emotionally. That’s not so bad, is it? And it is undeniably true.
Fiction is all about this emotional manipulation. And make no mistake, manipulation is exactly what it is. Without it, where would fiction be?
Imagine your favorite stories, your favorite characters. Now imagine them . . . different. Imagine Batman dressed like a bear, fighting crime in Cleveland. Imagine Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a grizzled old fat guy who is chosen to kill monsters. Imagine if the hobbits were actually orcs who loved drinking blood rather than eating mushrooms. Imagine if nobody died at the end of Million Dollar Baby or if everybody died at the end of Grease. Imagine every single story ever written ending with a sudden alien invasion. Just ALIENS from the sky out of nowhere.
All the above examples are fictional. They aren’t real. They exist purely in the realm of imagination and as such, any of those things could be the case. But most would either alter or destroy the appeal of the work. Why? Because the emotional appeal is destroyed with it.
It’s not, as most might assume, because it violates the reality of the stories. Stories have no reality. They are only limited by their creator’s imaginations. Ask a child to tell you a story and reality will soon fall to the wayside in favor of whatever cool idea that pops in their head. As we get older, we begin placing limits on stories because it helps to keep them focused. But those limits aren’t so much based on reality as on hitting that emotional sweet spot for us. It’s in striking that sweet spot that a story succeeds or fails.
If a story or character can fill a need then the audience will forgive it almost anything. But if it stops fulfilling that need, then nothing can be forgiven.
This is why aliens don’t invade Desperate Housewives. It’s not for the sake of realism. It’s because the moment those aliens appeared, all the fans of the show would have a visceral negative response. That isn’t what people watch that show for, and so, the emotional shock would throw everything out the window.
But to be clear, aliens could invade this or any show. Or everyone on Hawaii 5-0 could become telepathic. Or CSI could become a show about people who fight morlocks. The only thing preventing this is the good sense of the creators who understand that this sudden change would destroy the good will of the audience.
At the end of the day though, all stories are fake and we willingly believe the ones we like anyway, even as we mock the ones that don’t speak to us. I’ll admit I don’t usually get Academy Award winning movies. They just seem so artificial and ridiculous to me. But then I realize I’m a guy who wrote a novel about a squid from Neptune who conquers the universe with superscience. It’s ridiculous, all right. But what isn’t?
This is why, though I’m not a fan, I usually don’t mock Twilight. Regardless of whether it speaks to me, it speaks to a lot of people. It’d be unfair to dismiss those people’s emotional response, even as I realize that all of Twilight‘s sins (it’ stilted writing, its overblown romance, its unsubtle versions of good and evil) are all things that are found in John Carter of Mars books. And damn it, I love John Carter of Mars.
It’s almost as if we are all blind to our own emotional needs, our own hot buttons (both good and bad). If not blind, at least willingly oblivious.
Whenever I watch a ghost hunting show and someone says, “I felt really scared so I knew there had to be a ghost there”, I think to myself, “I almost cried during Wall-E, despite knowing that none of the characters were real. What does that prove?”
Yeah, I almost cried. I don’t cry. But I can come close.
Fiction is proof that not only are we human beings fanciful, but we are easily manipulated by that. It’s like the cheat code to hack into our brains. Find the right emotional cue and ninety percent of the work is done. It’s not exactly a secret. Politicians, salesmen, and undisguised liars such as myself have been doing it since the dawn of time.
The only amazing thing is how so few people have ever caught on to it.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,