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Fictions include a variety of things: face-saving untruths that no one believes; devices of convenience in law; and unreal postulates such as the supposed inner planet Vulcan. This entry will address a narrower field: discourse that aims to convey a narrative of events but which is not intended by its maker to be taken as true. Fiction in this sense may appear in any medium, sometimes in language and sometimes not, and in a variety of genres. Historically the most important genres seem to have been epic poetry, the comic and tragic forms of drama, and the novel, which has shown a generally increasing but not uniform tendency to naturalism over time. These genres have been transmuted by the vast and accelerating body of fictions in filmic and televisual media since the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet it is worth noting that nothing is known of most of the history of fictional narrative, since fiction may well be as old as language, and no story older than 5,000 years has survived. It is certainly hard to believe that fiction was absent from human society 30,000 years ago, given the impressive cultural, imaginative, and symbolic achievements of that period, visible in cave paintings and carved objects. Fiction may indeed be ten times older than that.
It is important to see that this definition of fiction is consistent with fiction having any number of purposes over and above the mere telling of a story, including didactic purposes. The definition requires only that the author should not present the events of the narrative as real; he or she may well intend to convince an audience of the truth of a certain ethical or political viewpoint that the narrative serves to suggest.
The idea of fiction generates a number of philosophical problems. One takes the form of puzzlement about why people are interested in fictional stories, given that they generally understand that events have not happened and characters do not exist. The answer is probably that the attraction of fiction is testimony to human delight in the exercise of imagination and the rich emotional responses that imagining certain events generates. This issue has recently been given an evolutionary formulation: Why, given the pressing need for true information about the world, should humans ever have developed an interest in misrepresentations, which do not tell them how to feed, clothe, or house themselves? Human mental evolution seems likely to have been driven partly by social forces, making it advantageous for people to be able to understand, cooperate with, and sometimes deceive one another. Fiction may have developed as a kind of training ground on which to exercise mind-reading powers: a social assault course where live ammunition is banned. However there is little empirical evidence to support this hypothesis. Alternatively a taste for fiction might be a useless by-product of mental capacities that evolved for other purposes.
A further puzzle, and one with important practical ramifications, concerns the relation of a fiction’s world to the world of reality. Viewers or readers generally assume that a fiction will be set within a framework of truth, and are sensitive to any indication that the author is exploiting or has misplaced the boundary between this factual background and the events and characters created. The power of socially critical fiction, such as that of English novelist Charles Dickens (1812–1870) depends on this. Readers of espionage fiction will complain about minor mistakes in the description of technology; more seriously, others respond to fictions such as British writer Salman Rushdie’s (b. 1947) Satanic Verses (1988) with violent protest. While such responses may be deplored, the general idea that that fiction has a capacity to generate and control powerful emotional response, which may then influence behavior and belief, is not implausible. And sensitivity in this area is also testimony to the finely tuned capacity of human beings to grasp an author’s unarticulated intentions: One realizes that, while the story itself is fiction, there lies behind it a possibly multilayered set of intentions to persuade and perhaps to manipulate.
The status of fictional characters, who are often spoken of in familiar and even intimate terms, is an interesting facet of the analysis of fictions. Theorists have occasionally argued that fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes exist in some way that, mysteriously, differs from the manner of existence of normal people. A better interpretation is that while what people think and say gives the impression that they are actually referring to fictional people as real, they in fact understand these characters to be make-believe. However creators of fiction do create entities subtly different from fictional people, namely the roles filled by fictional characters. These roles may be thought of as sets of characteristics that someone would have to possess if he were, for example, Sherlock Holmes (when in fact no one is). One can accept such statements as “Dickens created some very memorable characters” as true, but understand the reference to characters really to be a reference to roles.
The definition proposed at the beginning of this entry might be regarded by some as intolerably restrictive: There is a tendency in early-twenty-first-century thinking, influenced by postmodern ideas, to identify representations of any kind with fiction, on the grounds that representations select, and so distort, reality. In defense of the approach here taken there is a very significant difference between a story that is, and that is honestly presented as being, made up, and one that purports, perhaps only partially and perhaps with significant elements of misrepresentation, to relate real events. Categories such as the documentary film certainly need a nuanced approach that recognizes they are not and cannot be mere reflections of the real, but it is not appropriate to lump them into a vastly inflated category of the fictional class.
- Byrne, Alex. 1993. Truth in Fiction: The Story Continued. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 71 (1): 24–35.
- Currie, Gregory. 1990. The Nature of Fiction. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Thomasson, Amie. 1999. Fiction and Metaphysics. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Walton, Kendall L. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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