Balancing Fantasy and Authenticity

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Humans are funny things. We’re just as capable of finding meaning in a wild flight of fancy as in a calm, lifelike drama. We can learn rudimentary life lessons from wizards and space pirates, and we can live out power fantasies through the “neighbors next door.”

It’s not as though fantasy and authenticity are an all-or-nothing affair, either. To some degree every story straddles a balance between the two. The most imaginative of all fantasies still requires something relatable to establish a common grounding, otherwise the reader will not be able to understand what is going on. Consider the following passage

The Collans repeatedly phased through the entire Baryth spectrum, giving rise to the deepest Gerru yet. It coalesced with the Hinter fields and the resulting Delawa washed over them all.

This is meaningless without any context. It’s perfectly fine for an author to make up characters and phrases, but if you’re going to reference a Baryth spectrum you first need to define it in terms that are grounded in my real world understanding.

On the other hand, even a narrative that strives to capture true-life characters and events must take some creative liberties to fill the gaps in our historical records. Otherwise it isn’t a story, it is just another one of those historical records, a mere timeline of occurrences. For example, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba there must have been a moment of decision that led to his triumphant return to France. We know the world events that likely influenced his decisions, but we do not know exactly which point it was that convinced him the time was right to return. Any narrative of this man’s rise then fall and rise then fall would likely feel compelled to capture this pivotal turn between the two halves of that trajectory. As such the narrative would need to fabricate some fitting scene for this moment, one that is at least true to the man if not the history books.

On Thursday I posted a story where I tried to give a very down-to-earth report on the fictional end of the world. I knew that I wanted to employ an understated style of narration and avoid any melodramatic statements, so that I could create an authentic atmosphere for this tale of mankind’s demise.

At a certain point, though, I had a narrative decision to make on where that commitment to authenticity ended. I had in mind a symmetry of astronomers and archaeologists discovering the signs of the world’s impending doom simultaneously from the heavens above and the earth below. These signs would be foretelling of events that would be pretty extreme, and in extremity comes all sorts of complications with authenticity. And so the decision I faced was between maintaining that narrative symmetry, or else trying to be more authentic to the principles of physics, astronomy, and geology.

Ultimately I decided to go with the narrative symmetry. I was already giving a fictional account and I didn’t take issue then with bending the natural laws to fit my purpose. I made that decision simply by examining what mattered to me as the author, what points were most important for me to convey, and then being true to those cores. Another author with different priorities would be perfectly justified in making the opposite decision. In fact, in other stories I, too, would make the opposite decision to favor the more authentic approach. Consider the following mostly true account of the real-life mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel.

Kurt Gödel was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, and even a good friend of his. Where Einstein shook the world with his advancements in physics, Gödel defined some of the greatest principles of mathematics and logic to this day. He discovered his love for these sciences in his youth, and completed a dissertation in that field when only 23 years of age. This dissertation, called the Incompleteness Theorem, turned the entire scientific world on its head when first published. One of the most intriguing applications of this work has to do with how it defines the limits of science. You see the Incompleteness Theorem proves that there are truths which are true, but which cannot be proven as such.

This proof does not dispute the fact that the natural holds universal truths and mathematical principles, but only establishes that not all of these can be discovered through the calculations of science. This discovery came at a time where mathematicians were beginning to boast that soon they would have answers to every question in the world. The Incompleteness Theorem proved that they would not.

Gödel not only provided the proofs in the papers he wrote, he also illustrated them tragically through his own life. Though he maintained an amazing genius and a strict regime of reason in his professional work, yet he held onto deep and irrational fears in his personal life. In June of 1936 a personal hero of his was assassinated by a former student, having been given tea laced with a fatal poison. The loss shook Gödel personally and deeply and germinated a paranoia in his young mind, specifically a fear of being poisoned himself.

Though Gödel maintained his composure well enough to lead an accomplished and fulfilling life, the fears persisted and grew as he advanced in years. By the time he reached 70 years he refused to take any food that was not prepared for him by his beloved wife, Adele. She remained his singular constant, the only one whom he dared to trust. When, in 1977, she was hospitalized, he ate nothing at all, shriveling away to a mere 65 pounds until at last he died. She soon followed him.

Gödel remains one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known, seeing the facts and realities that others never could. Yet for it all there was an incompleteness to him, much as the one that he had defined for the science he loved. For in them both there were mysteries and shadows that defied all reason, questions that could find no answers.

As I said at the outset, this story is mostly true, there was only one point in this account which I fabricated. Gödel did, indeed, have a personal hero that was killed by a former student, and it was this event that sparked his deep paranoia. However that professor was not assassinated via poison, but rather shot with a common pistol. I do not know why a shooting resulted in Gödel fearing poison more than guns, but somehow it did. Changing the method of assassination gives the story a better symmetry, however in this case I would choose to err on the side of authenticity. The literary qualities are already remarkable as they are, there is foreshadowing and allegory, triumph and tragedy, character and plot. All these authentic elements I would argue should be allowed to shine more brightly by repressing the urge to fabricate any enhancements to them.

If in your own stories you find yourself testing that line between the fantastic and the authentic, I recommend you pause to take in your narrative side-by-side with your objectives. There isn’t a cut-and-dried answer as to where you should draw that line of authenticity, you simply have to weigh what principles are the most important to you in this tale and what is lost be being more imaginative versus more realistic. In the end all your story really needs to be true to is itself.

 

This Thursday I’ll be sharing a new short story that walks the line between what is real and what is imagined, and that within its own narrative. Our main character will be a psychologist helping a patient to tease the truth of actual events out from the truths of the heart. I hope to see you then.

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