Philosophers still worry about the paradox of fiction: how can we care about someone who doesn’t exist?
The response to this question is that it’s not a paradox. The existence of the character is entirely separate from our feelings of identification. We willingly believe in the story as long as it rings true. We believe in many things because we like the sound of them. We can believe in other people when we aren’t involved in their lives. After all, the story is already finished, we just have to sit back and watch.
It’s more tricky when we flip the paradox and ask:
If we are all narrators, writing the stories of our lives, who is our audience?
If it’s ourselves, then we have the possibility of getting ourselves wrong. We may forget things, interpret events in ways that make us feel better, and so forth. It is a much more uncomfortable task.
We know that we exist but we don’t know our story. Our lives are like film footage that has yet to be edited. When something goes wrong, we worry that we changed the story irreversibly in the wrong “direction”, we blame ourselves, and we feel regret. None of this, of course, makes sense.
Sometimes we choose to believe stories that we invent in order to justify unadvisable decisions.
We may choose, for example, to continue to see men or women who clearly do not care about us and who do not view us as special enough to make any effort whatsoever to impress us.
Meanwhile, we look for clues, we imagine that we are different — that this situation is different somehow — and even still we know that we are lying to ourselves. But we continue on anyway; we’ve spent time and energy and emotion on this person.
We didn’t understand that this was the way it would go; at first we didn’t care.
Then it dawns on us. We do care. We care because we are sick of trying, we like this person right now, and that person seems to like us.
But then we realize that other people aren’t like us. Other people are capable of keeping us at arm’s length, on the side, the periphery of their lives, and they never really think twice about it.
We may choose to believe that a person loves us when they do not. Does this choice always lead to pain?
We may even fool ourselves on purpose, when every sign points left, we go right. We are lost and tired, but we can only blame ourselves.
Even still, though reality can jolt us into feeling the pain of unrequited love, must we say that the period of false hope was not beautiful in some way?
When we do not know the truth, and we are enjoying ourselves, that past enjoyment remains, unaltered, even when we come to learn the truth. Obviously, we cannot go back in time and change our experiences.
Consider the notion of blissful ignorance.
The “ignorance” can only be blissful from the perspective of someone who sees the truth. This might be an outsider, or it could be our future selves.
When we consider our pasts, we do not necessarily regret being young and foolish. If we have a healthy view of things, we likely see our youth as a necessary step toward our current position (or perspective), in the present.
When we look toward the future, the staircase ascends higher. We shouldn’t be bothered by the fact that we cannot see where it ends.
When we love someone who does not love us in return, we know that if we were to ask:
Do you love me?
that person would respond:
No, I don’t love you.
We may have even heard our beloved say these words.
And of course, why should he or she love you? You hardly know each other (in the sense of “to be familiar with”), and so, by default, you are the crazy one for assuming that you do.
So you avoid the topic, because you know that if you ask, he or she will respond in the same way. Nothing will have changed.
So you wait and you pretend.
This type of belief is the self-deceptive kind, the kind that can bog a person down and cause a reversal in healthy psychological development. Self-esteem implodes and further goals cannot be met.
It is here, in instances such as these, that false belief becomes harmful.
The other person becomes a character in your own mind such that you are unprepared for the moment in which that person doesn’t follow the script.
Because you are dealing with a real person, you cannot simply say:
He/she wouldn’t do that! This behavior is not believable in the context of my story!
and move on.
You have to accept the fact that your “character” is a real-life flesh and blood human like yourself, and that you do not have the right to decide their fate or attempt to control their thoughts.
The author or omniscient narrator breaks down where reality takes over.
Art is a friendly deception. It must deceive (in a sense) in order to succeed, and it must be friendly in order to keep its audience happy.
In fiction, this “deception” is maintained via a storytelling contract.
The artist or storyteller must stick to the (implicit) storytelling contract, which says that the storyteller must assert fictional statements in good faith — in ways that I, the viewer, expect and want.
My tacit acceptance of the fiction enters me into the contract as well.
When we watch movies, we depend on reliable, trustworthy entertainers.
As long as the filmmaker maintains the truth of the fiction, and that fiction is not hidden from its audience, then the filmmaker remains both reliable and trustworthy.
Untrustworthy filmmakers, on the other hand, use lies or sleights of hand to manipulate audiences under the pretense of truth.
In real life, the storytelling contract exists between two versions of yourself; the “you” who tells your story, and the “you” who lives it. You have to live through the story before you can tell it.
I became interested in this topic after reading moral philosopher John Martin Fischer’s article: “Stories and the Meaning of Life” (2009). Fischer is a philosophy professor at the University of California, Riverside.