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Writers, Truthers & the Big Question

I commented in the first segment of this series about the similar thought patterns and behaviors shared by some inexperienced writers and conspiracy theorists (or truthers, as they are often called).

In “Writers, Truthers & Freeze Frames”, I explored some of the common elements in the narratives spun by truthers—Sandy Hook truthers, in that case—and inexperienced writers I’ve worked with over the years in different contexts.

Some of those elements include:

  • The importance of time. For example, video cannot be taken of an event before reporters or even people with cell phones have had time to reach the scene.
  • The continued existence of persons or characters involved in the narrative and their pre-existence before the narrative.
  • The interconnectedness of those persons or characters with other persons or characters.
  • The marks that people leave where they live, work, go to school, shop, worship, etc. In other words, paper/electron trails and backstories.

My interest in conspiracy theories as fiction narratives was piqued anew when an online colleague, Chris Hernandez, posted a couple of articles (here and here) on the dust up over Jade Helm 15. Jade Helm 15, for those who may not have heard of it, is one of a series of war games that our military conducts in the US to prepare our soldiers for battle. It has precipitated a number of conspiracy theories about The Government’s real intent in holding these joint military exercises.

For me, the discussion crystallized a common element in both intentionally fictional narratives and conspiracy theories: the absence of a motive.

I became engaged in the online comment stream on Chris’s blog with those who insist that The Government (specifically, the Obama Administration) had intent to (choose one or more of the following):

  • Invade Texas and declare martial law.
  • Send certain citizens or all citizens of Texas to FEMA camps via secret tunnels beneath defunct Wal-Marts. (There’s also a conspiracy theory about those camps being equipped with thousands of guillotines purchased from France, but that’s a different bouilloire de poisson.)
  • Allow China to invade Texas.
  • Allow ISIS to invade Texas.
  • Make a show of force at the border to warn the ISIS terrorists in Mexico to stay the heck out of Texas (which, you’d think, would be a good thing).

Be it noted that Texas is only one of nine states that will host these exercises … on private property.

It is an interesting facet of conspiracy theories that no two truthers agree entirely on the exact nature of the conspiracy and some may differ widely on what the reality is, hence the conflicting ideas above. Among Sandy Hook conspiracists there are groups who spend much of their time and effort in debunking each other; whether that will also happen with Jade Helm truthers—or more recently, Parkland truthers and corona virus truthers—remains to be seen. But, regardless of which of these scenarios a truther believes or a writer invents, there is an important question that must be answered in order for the scenario to make sense to an audience.

In a word: WHY?

I’d argue that this is more important in achieving buy-in in intentional fiction than it is in conspiracy theories because most readers demand a certain amount of veracity in the plot and character details of a narrative before they will suspend disbelief. Perhaps this is because conspiracy theories are free, but one must usually pay for a book. (Please, pay for our books, Dearest Reader.)

Author Anna Quindlen has said that, in writing fiction, “Reality is in the dishes.” What she means by this is that a reader will cheerfully believe in unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos if a writer makes the human details realistic and believable or if, in the context of the fictional world, the writer can show that it makes sense for there to be unicorns or dragons or sentient geckos.

This is the standard I apply when I play Jedi Master to less experienced writers, and it causes me to ask, as I read a writer’s work, “Why? Why would X character do this? Why would this group function this way?” In other words, what is their intent or purpose?

In the case of both conspiracy theorists and some writers, that question draws a blank stare accompanied by the dulcet tones of crickets singing in the grasses. In one instance I recall vividly from a writers’ workshop years ago, I asked an aspiring fantasist why his character did something that was both out of character (as revealed in the story) and against the apparent magical rules of the fictional world. He looked at me with a completely perplexed expression and said, “This is fantasy. There are no rules. That’s why I chose to write in this genre—I can just make stuff up as I go along.” (Yes, you can hear eyes rolling if four people do it simultaneously.)

Similarly, truthers ignore the basic reality that in order for a person or organization to undertake a tremendously expensive and time- and energy-consuming exercise that requires exhaustive planning, they will have a pretty solid reason for doing so—at least a reason that makes sense to them and offers sufficient payoff to compensate for the expenditure of resources and energies.

I find that this inability to answer the basic question, “Why?” is most prevalent in both writing and conspiracies when it comes to assigning rationales for the “bad guy”. 

The old school comic book or fairy tale villain was just evil ‘coz he was evil. Like Jessica Rabbit (Who Killed Roger Rabbit?) he or she was “just drawn that way” because the writer said so. (Which gets us into the realm of Puppet Master Syndrome, but that’s another blog topic.)  In modern fiction, most readers want and even demand more than “just ‘coz” from a character. They want characters that are nuanced, realistic, relatable. They want to be able to understand the motivations of the villain, even if they do not relate to them. They want the characters they read about to seem like real people with real motives.

The payoff aspect of the Big Why inherently raises issues of scale. Some of the most trying moments I’ve experienced as a ghostwriter and editor are ones in which I have been unable to make a client understand that a reader will not suspend disbelief if their characters are acting out of scale. That is, blowing up the FedEx truck that’s blocking your driveway instead of simply asking the driver not to block your driveway.

I’ve experienced a similar level of frustration when trying to get a conspiracy theorist to understand the importance of a rational reason an individual or group would do something huge and heinous when there were simpler, legal, more straightforward ways of accomplishing the same thing … or the huge and heinous thing was completely unnecessary because the desired situation already existed. For example, that taking over Texas is unnecessary because Texas is already part of the United States, having been annexed in 1845—an event that set off the Mexican-American war. As Chris Hernandez put it, “All your Texas are belong to U.S.”

Personally, I think that every writer could benefit from at least a cursory study of conspiracy theories and conspiracist arguments. Having asked numerous questions about logical connections (most of which go unanswered) I’ve become hyper-aware of those connections in my stories.

There is one way in which the naive writer and the conspiracist differ. When a writer neglects to answer questions about the logical connections in her fiction, it may affect her ability to publish or, having published, to satisfy readers. The most dire impact is on the writer, herself. When conspiracy theorists and those who buy into their theories fail to ask those questions, the consequences can be far-reaching and destructive to society as a whole.

Here, I invoke Anna Quindlen again.

“Ignorant free speech often works against the speaker. That is one of several reasons why it must be given rein instead of suppressed.”

Amen.

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