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Easy Questions, Part 2: Delusional Desires in Fiction

In Part 1, I examined a few common tropes in stories and suggested that some stories might explore certain questions not because those questions are interesting, but because engaging with those questions allows the story to avoid grappling with other, more challenging questions. This part focuses on delusional desires in fiction, building off of the understanding of delusional desires I developed here. For why I care about any of this, see this post.

Sometimes I’ll stumble across seasoned veterans of a field like healthcare venting about how media (e.g. medical dramas) create a warped perception in the public’s mind—and especially in the minds of people going into the field—of how the field works. Fiction, they say, creates misconceptions and unrealistic expectations about the field, and experts have to waste their time getting people to unlearn what they’ve been told by storytellers (who are, I’ll remind you, professional liars). Or maybe I’ll find someone online who is concerned about how reading lots of romance novels could be emotionally problematic because romance in fiction creates distorted expectations for romance in reality.

Maybe there’s some truth to these criticisms, but in a way, they misunderstand the goals of the stories. I haven’t heard anyone complain that binge-watching Mission Impossible and James Bond doesn’t prepare you for a career at an intelligence agency. We understand that the goal of those stories is to create an experience of tension and drama and stakes followed by resolution through the bold, skillful, charismatic antics of our characters, not to equip us for the real world. Likewise, the goal of a medical drama’s creators might simply be to create a compelling viewing experience loosely grounded in a plausible, relatable setting, not to serve as a substitute for actual real-life medical experience.

Crafting an experience is not easy. Writing a romance story with characters and chemistry and tension that feels legitimate enough to earn that warm-fuzzy payoff is challenging regardless of whether the story does anything to prepare its audience for “the real world”. Is a romance novelist a failure if their goal was to craft an experience of chemistry and longing and confusion and pain culminating in triumphant reunion and happily-ever-after bliss, and that’s exactly what you felt? They accomplished what they set out to do.

So who cares if the story is ‘unrealistic’? Is it an artist’s job to depict reality? Is it worth concerning ourselves with these ‘unrealistic expectations’ complaints at all?

Well…at least to the last question, yes. Real people are concerned that fiction is hurting real people. It’s worth checking whether they have a point, even if I’m not yet sure how strong of a claim I’m comfortable making about a storyteller’s responsibility (or lack thereof) to instruct their audience. So let’s set aside the question of what fiction “should” be, but continue to examine what effects it might have on an audience.

When does fiction risk creating or cultivating unrealistic expectations? When are those unrealistic expectations likely to be unhealthy for the audience?

In theory, fiction could cultivate all sorts of bizarre expectations. You could spend your childhood locked in a room listening to true crime podcasts and you’d probably expect to get murdered the second you stepped outside. You could exclusively watch musicals and expect people to periodically burst into song. But this type of unrealistic expectation isn’t usually what people are concerned about, and rightly so—exposure to the world, or even simply to a wider variety of stories, will quickly correct your misunderstandings.

What expectations won’t be so easily remedied? What are the expectations that people will want to hold onto even after their experiences challenge those expectations? What can fiction instill in us that can’t be simply corrected, but must be actively unlearned?

We’re not looking for garden-variety misunderstandings. We’re looking for delusional desires: understandable core desires that are bogged down with self-serving stipulations. We’re looking for the types of expectations that we’ll adopt easily and then struggle to relinquish even when they hurt us, the trainee nurse who expects work to be like a TV show, the romance reader who wants real-life love to play out in the familiar patterns of crafted stories.

Well, delusional desires aren’t hard to find in fiction. Blatant power fantasies and implausible love triangles are only the beginning—other, subtler delusional desires are woven into fiction as well, like how in real life, it would be delusional to expect important information to be highlighted and irrelevant information to be omitted completely, but you’d expect a story to do that work for you to streamline the consumption experience. In some sense, all fiction exists to fulfill a desire that would be delusional to have in real life—to experience things outside of what your life can offer you in this moment.

If you look for it, you’ll find that much of fiction is the act of contorting a fictional world to give rise to situations where delusional desires can be vicariously fulfilled. For example, many fictional sports stories attempt to create an experience where a team of misfits, each with their own struggles, band together to grow and learn and fight for their dream until everything coalesces into one hyper-dramatic Big Game with an intensely cathartic, vindicating win. In order to elevate the drama and the eventual triumph, that team will probably be the underdog, and something bad will happen shortly before the showdown to give a “darkest hour” which will make the moment of victory that much sweeter. Making ‘realistic’ choices like having the underdog win via a fluke (rather than skill), or having characters come in and out of the story in unsatisfying ways, would detract from the intended experience. The “sports underdog” story archetype, then, is not just a random choice of story. It is the result of many carefully-engineered choices, designed specifically to create deeply satisfying feelings of against-all-odds triumph.

Perhaps it’s only natural that our stories are highly engineered. After all, if we wanted realism, there’s always reality.

But there’s something deeply strange happening here due to all of this behind-the-scenes work. There’s a tension between the content of stories and the structure of stories. To create the experience of earning victory, we want a story to have good, satisfying character arcs. We want to see our heroes earn their happy endings by growing beyond what’s preventing them from getting what they want. All positive character arcs are simply a character colliding with their world’s reality and determining that they must change in some way to adapt to that world. Whether it’s the star player accepting that sometimes he must let someone else have the spotlight for the good of the team, or our heroine coming to recognize she’s letting her prejudice bias her feelings and decisions, we want to see our characters evolve and grow to earn their joy. And yet we carefully, intricately construct our sports stories to give us not just boring victory, but deeply validating, undeniably deserved victory against impossible odds. Our love stories don’t conclude with a feeling of nice romantic connection with some lingering uncertainty, but of total indefinite romantic bliss.

Isn’t there some note of hypocrisy there? Isn’t it a kind of double standard if our characters must earn their joy through pain and acceptance and growth, but our storytellers work overtime on our behalf to make the vicarious experience of that growth as digestible and satisfying and pleasant as it possibly can be? Characters must learn that they can’t just demand what they want and expect to get it, but we spend millions casting the perfect actors with the perfect makeup and the perfect hair to portray those flawed characters on perfect sets.

Again, this isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, but I think it’s worth exploring the alternative. What happens when a storyteller refuses to give their readers what they want? What happens when a storyteller instead demands that their audience change?

A Song of Ice and Fire, the acclaimed George R.R. Martin series adapted to Game of Thrones, is a story that says “You wanted a cast of righteous, likable, attractive characters where virtue is neatly rewarded? Too bad—this is a cold world run by twisted, horrible people where suffering and death come to hero and villain alike, so you’d better learn to find glimpses of hope and humanity in moments of goodness or you won’t last long.”

It seems cruel and bleak and completely unnecessary. From the outside, you can’t help but wonder how anyone can enjoy immersing themselves in such a miserable world, and it’s easy to assume that the entire appeal of the series is people’s dark fascination with depravity.

But that explanation undersells what the story can accomplish. Many, many people have deeply cared about characters in A Song of Ice and Fire despite those characters being awful people. You might find that you can root for murderers to do one little thing right, that you can feel a surge of excitement and hope when a coward does just one brave thing. It’s a dark, cold world, but your eyes adjust and you see these fleeting bright acts of human decency, made so much more meaningful in a world where the response will so often be indifference or betrayal.

Somehow, tiny gestures of kindness from horrid people in a horrid world mean so much more than all the grand heroic gestures in the tidy, virtue-rewarding worlds we often ask for in our fantasy stories. Martin carefully, deliberately refuses to give us what we want, not just as a plot twist, not just as a subversion of expectations, but almost as a challenge. Can you still care about these people, this world, even now? Can you hold onto any hope?

Do you actually need your heroes to be attractive, competent, upstanding people, or are you more capable than you imagined? Are you able to take in a world of near-total darkness without losing hope entirely? If so, isn’t that a powerful thing? Isn’t that something about yourself that’s worth knowing?

To be clear, a story doesn’t have to be dark or violent to encourage its audience to leave an unneeded limitation behind. Consider a few delusional desires a story could address, and the many ways a story could create a space where the audience could discard them:

So it’s possible to use fiction to create an emotional environment where the audience, as well as the characters, are challenged to grow. But it’s a lot of work. Why bother?

You certainly don’t have to. You can write a story that doesn’t bother with anything I’ve discussed here, and that story can still be fresh, well-paced, and compelling. Your story can have shocking plot twists to provide the thrill of subverted expectations that people love, or be controversial and combative in a way that caters to its target audience. You can write an action film that has our eyes wide and our hearts pounding or a romantic comedy that is hilarious and tender and sweet. You can produce an incredible work of art that creates the kind of experience the audience wants to have. That type of story is extremely challenging to do well, and audiences adore them.

But when people talk about the stories that they are deeply, viscerally grateful for, I think they’re usually talking about another kind of story, the kind of story that caters to almost all of its audience’s delusions. You shouldn’t expect the real world to conveniently introduce you to all the people you need to know in a streamlined way, but the storyteller does that for you. You shouldn’t expect the real world to be full of cool flashy things like giant fire-breathing dragons, but you’ll have them in this story. You’ll get almost every delusion you ask for—except a few. For just a handful of carefully-chosen delusions, despite your anguish, despite what you think you need, the storyteller will refuse to bend to your desires. It feels cruel, but you are being challenged to let go of a delusion that you don’t need, a delusion that is only holding you back.

Audiences love the stories that set them up in some pleasant nest and cater to their every need, and there’s a place for pampering, even if many of us get far larger quantities of it than we really need. But there’s also a place for watching carefully as a bird grows and, the moment it’s ready, kicking it out of the nest, and people will forever cherish the stories that forced them to learn they could fly.