Post No.: 0536
There’s such a natural need for deciphering meaning and coherency in this world that we’ll interpret meaning and assume causality and coherency in even works of fiction, such as fantasy stories in books, movies and videogames.
This activity is absolutely worthwhile and fun for fans of fictional worlds that were forged with a huge amount of creativity and imagination – and I love doing it too! I currently prefer story-driven videogames. And such discussions of works of art amongst fans are mostly genteel.
…But some people will get into quite tremendously crotchety and tempestuous debates with each other about these characters, stories and worlds and seem to forget that they are completely made-up!
Most people can, ultimately, differentiate between fiction and reality, but it’s like there’s an unspoken rule that says we should never sacrilegiously mention that it’s made-up. We need to consider that perhaps the writers were clumsy for writing in continuity errors, retcons, contradictions, inconsistencies and plot holes that wouldn’t/couldn’t arise if they were real-life characters and events? (Lies, as fictional creations, are prone to these same problems.) Researchers can make mistakes (like Jurassic Park and the velociraptors), apply questionable pop psychology, and writers have their own biases and versions of realities to tell the stories they wish to tell. Perhaps the priority was creating an optimal game mechanic with elements that made for more interesting gameplay than a completely coherent story? Perhaps it’s full of ad hoc ‘MacGuffins’ (objects, devices or events that are necessary to advance the plot but are themselves insignificant or irrelevant) that simply make the story or game flow better?
It’s again a marvellous endeavour to be so inquisitive and reflective so I’m not discouraging the conversations, but it’s also wise to not take such debates too seriously because it’s fiction. Take the main themes – and the things we can learn for real life – but maybe don’t get hung up on the details, especially if they start to become confusing. I’d personally save such seriousness for critiquing facts in reality than fiction in made-up creations e.g. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four world hasn’t happened, but we should definitely watch out for such a totalitarian surveillance state because it could yet happen in reality.
If the events have been faithfully reported then reality must not have any anachronisms or plot holes – but fiction can be riddled with them, thus to assume that a fictional universe cannot be full of errors or not-fully-baked ideas is folly. Causality, or cause leading to effect, must be adhered to in real-life stories but it doesn’t have to in fiction, or it can be neglected because a plot gets so convoluted that it’s difficult trying to keep track of all the plot dynamics. Even works that are considered canon (official rather than fan fiction) can occasionally contradict themselves. And in fiction, stories and timelines can be rewritten and rewritten again too.
Holes or contradictions are too easy to make in a complex and large fictional universe where the authors can lose track of cause-and-effect and continuity – especially if multiple authors contribute to it over time. Such a large universe expands piece-by-piece, and changes can reflect e.g. changes in property ownership (such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe under Disney), changes in designs so that new toys can be commercially sold, or cultural changes because some things that used to be considered acceptable aren’t anymore. Many decisions are guided by what maximises shareholder value e.g. toning a story down to give it more mass appeal.
After learning about how entertainment is produced, written and directed – you’ll understand better why they typically use character stereotypes, caricatures, clichés or over-simplify or over-dramatise matters. Understand that their primary goal is entertainment, not education, with investors who are looking to maximise their returns and authors who must keep their target markets in mind.
Things in a world of fiction don’t have to physically make sense and follow real-world physical laws either, hence e.g. superpowers or cartoonish motion. Anything can essentially be written as long as it’s believable and follows a consistent internal logic. The events didn’t actually happen, and they mightn’t even be physically possible in reality. A plot device might’ve been ridiculous if it were real but was contrived to justify the following gameplay or drama. And we cannot have ‘and they lived happily ever after’ after the first minute – if the characters always behaved sensibly, there’d be no drama, and no drama means boring!
I suppose it’s right to demand better writing that doesn’t contrive ludicrous events or doltish character behaviours, and it’s fun to try to validate or stitch-up plot holes with our own hypotheses. Yet, like being a detective trying to solve a real-life mystery, these would only be our own hypotheses unless we can prove them. In the real world, we can find evidence, but we cannot enter a world of fiction to do the same – so only the official writers can tell us what’s true or will be true.
Yet some people will even question the authors themselves! But it’s their own made-up world and intellectual property so how can they be disputed?! There’s no fact in these worlds apart from what the creator says is so.
Or sometimes the authors themselves don’t have a definitive answer. Sometimes the creators deliberately imbue ambiguity into their works because they know that this will precisely stoke up conversations about it, create buzz and get fans engrossed to help spread publicity about a product i.e. they intentionally contrive major talking points. Open-ended endings inspire our imaginations to fill in the gaps ourselves to provide the closure we personally hope for… or they can be just simply down to lazy writing!
This parallels religion in the sense that lots of people try to investigate the truth of stories of purported miracles or biblical events – but we should also try to investigate the minds of those who wrote such stories, and those who believe in them. In the case of pieces of entertainment that don’t pretend they’re not fiction, we categorically know their stories aren’t true. And, whether fictional or factual, perhaps the principal value in religious stories is also in interpreting their parables and fables rather than taking them as literally historically accurate events.
Even novels or movies that are ‘based on true events’ are seldom completely historically faithful – they’d be called documentaries if they tried to be as accurate as possible rather than use artistic license to make them more entertaining. Some war movies and videogames are essentially nationalistic propaganda pieces. Dramas tend to exaggerate or idealise things. Conflict is more riveting than peace. Fairy tales and romantic comedies can set up unrealistic expectations. Flamboyant martial arts fights don’t represent realistic fight scenes, and the bad guys usually miss a thousand shots whilst the good guys never miss i.e. the goodies in movies aren’t so fantastic as much as the baddies are made to look totally inept! Probably one of the few things that’s commonly underplayed rather than exaggerated are bodies that have fallen onto the ground from a great height, which are often depicted as if the victim has just tripped over with only a pool of blood underneath to show any evidence of trauma. But there exist people who start to e.g. think they know a lot about medicine after watching a few medical dramas, which is an example of ‘a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing’. Information presented in fictional works can be confused with facts or truth, as if ‘seeing is believing’ e.g. watching too many television dramas can give people a false impression of the success rate of CPR.
Even with so-called ‘reality TV’ shows that put participants in ‘risky, scary and challenging’ situations – you’ve got to ask what’s the mortality rate statistics of the previous participants? It’s probably zero thus they’re not that risky or scary from a rational perspective. The producers don’t even want the legal headache of dealing with any serious injuries or illnesses!
It can get tricky when fictional movies or videogames blend actual real-world science and facts with pseudoscience and pure fiction – if we’re not knowledgeable enough, we might end up taking the fantasies as facts, or vice-versa. And, each case should be assessed individually but, technical jargon conveyed in movies, especially in science fiction, often sound impressive until you learn more about the field concerned and realise that they’ve just been talking a load of gibberish or making something not that special sound more exotic than it really is!
But they are excellent ‘Gedankenexperiments’ or thought experiments. Their artistic value is in making us think rather than providing empirical evidence about the real world. So this isn’t to denigrate entertainment in its many forms as frivolous – they can be the things we really live for, and can keep us going through hard times e.g. watching something that makes us laugh or watching the team one supports win. They can give us the meaning to live, not to merely exist. Some works of entertainment also blur the lines between what’s considered entertainment, education, art and/or social commentary. Woof!
Works of fiction make great thought experiments but one should always ultimately come back to reality and support one’s beliefs with real-world empirical facts and hard evidence – to science rather than science fiction or fiction. Thought experiments can point to hypotheses but they don’t themselves provide any empirical data to prove them e.g. that a certain kind of dystopia would definitely occur in the real world given the same triggers presented in a fictional story. Trust in real-world, at least over fictional, evidence if they don’t both accord, no matter how emotively compelling the latter may be. (And therefore pay more attention to some real major concerns, such as human-accelerated climate change.) The baddies in films almost always eventually get their comeuppance, but justice doesn’t always prevail in reality. Fictional characters are humanised (and cried over, somehow swooned over, etc.), whilst real-life humans are sometimes dehumanised.
Opinions aren’t facts yet we can mistake our own interpretations of stories as objective when there is no objective interpretation. It’s like one could write a story about a little mouse who nearly ascended Mt Everest then rolled into the ocean below – some will think of this as complete nonsense but others will try to explore what this means metaphysically, existentially and/or in other ways philosophically. Interpretations could range from simple to deep, literal to abstract e.g. that the story is about getting so close but not close enough, or the mouse was really just using the mountain to create the biggest playground slide ever, or maybe it was Mt Everest during a different geological era? Some interpretations may be more plausible than others but there are multiple possible answers, if only we can personally think of or be open to them all.
Even with real-life non-fictional stories – objective interpretations of meaning are non-existent because purpose and meaning are personal. Human minds crave meaning and will find ‘patterns’ and ‘causal’ relationships even within random noise or mere coincidences. It’s as if people need to believe in something – anything rather than nothing – whatever it is. But there’s no objective meaning even in the real world, never mind in fictional stories in fictional worlds with fictional laws of nature. There are potentially as many possible interpretations of meaning as there are perspectives on life. Science cannot answer such questions. There might be one true objective reality but what it means will be subjective.
And I guess that’s where fictional works are invaluable and fabulous for exploring and questioning our own personal meanings, and for sharing them.
(My views are based on the combination of being a fan of fiction, of non-fiction, and having been, in the past, conversant in all facets of how animation is created. And the furry and fluffy conceit of this blog itself isn’t taken seriously… because how?(!))