Muse Monday (late, as usual): Imagine accurately

So Muse Monday is Muse Wednesday today. Again, not much of an excuse for the lateness. Just one of those things.

But I do have something I want to talk about, and somewhat paradoxically for a series of blog posts that discuss the writing of fiction – I want to talk about telling the truth.

One of my favorite – perhaps my favorite, period – long-running series of blog posts is Fred Clark’s dissection of the Left Behind series over at Slacktivist (older archives starting with the earliest posts are here, newer stuff is here). Now, regardless of what you think about the theology involved, I think it must be said that these are very bad books in the most essential sense – for the most part, they are shockingly poorly written, and the ways in which they are poorly written provide some useful examples for any writer of what not to do.

Most fundamentally, the Left Behind books are bad because they are not truthful. And I’m not talking about their eschatology or the fact that they’re fiction. I’m talking about how fundamentally unbelievable the world of the books is, and how unbelievably the characters behave. All the children and a significant number of the adults in the world vanish in an instant, and people seem to suffer no long-term trauma as a result of this. All the nations of the world are apparently charmed into fully disarming and disbanding their militaries. And a worldly journalist and a college student, both recent Christian converts, carry on a romantic relationship that seems to take months to proceed past handholding, with no indication that any previous relationship they’ve had has ever gone further.

These are just a few examples. The point is this: the Left Behind books fail at storytelling because they fail at being believable.

I think one of the most vital aspects of good storytelling lies in being able to convince people of fantastic things to the point where their emotions are engaged – it’s irrational to care about the fate of people you don’t know and who do not, in fact, exist, and yet this is one of the oldest and most profound parts of our culture as people and our imaginations as thinking animals. The most incredible stories can be made engaging and convincing if they’re told well, if people feel on a gut level that yes, this is how this would look if it ever happened, and this is how people in this situation would behave.

The concern for truthful storytelling above all else has implications for a number of other things as well. At this past year’s Wiscon, I saw Geoff Ryman on a panel focusing on cultural appropriation, and something he said really stuck with me: he said that if one wants to do justice to cultures that are not one’s own – if one wishes to treat them with respect – one must take special care to tell the truth about them. That the key lies in “imagining accurately”.

This is what makes good, fair, and lasting stories, then: accurate imagination. Sometimes this is going to mean doing a lot of research, or even traveling to see things and people firsthand. Sometimes it’s just going to mean paying special attention to how people really act and behave. But it’s always, always going to mean a primary concern for telling the truth.

I think this is why stories with agendas tend to be less successful – when it comes to a choice between sticking to the agenda and telling the truth, being truthful tends to fall by the wayside. It’s definitely one of the primary reasons why Left Behind is unsuccessful. It’s why a lot of allegories tend to be – people are only going to overlook your failure to imagine accurately if they already regard the ideological altar on which you sacrificed the truth to be the truth as well. And speaking personally, I find this an irritating and distracting practice even when the author and I are in ideological agreement; whatever my own philosophical and religious and political beliefs may be, I care at least as much about a good story.

It’s interesting that people who tell stories with these kinds of agendas are so concerned with using a story to convince people of or reinforce their own way of thinking. By failing to imagine accurately, they fail to be convincing. If one must tell stories with agendas, then, I guess this should be additional impetus to be absolutely certain that your take on things is self-evidently correct.

Or just tell a good story, and leave the sermonizing for Sunday.

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