Fiction is like a magic act. Making something appear to happen that doesn’t really happen. Like a magician, the writer uses the mind’s propensity to create a cohesive narrative from our sensory inputs, in order to create a reality that doesn’t truly exist. Though instead of fooling our eyes, the author relies on our imaginary senses to trigger our willing suspension of disbelief.
He lies to us, and we are active participants in the deception. If he’s got his act together, we enjoy it immensely. Why?
To my mind, complex communication arose to serve two primary purposes – to facilitate cooperation in order to gain the assistance of others in getting what we want, and to deceive others in order to get what we want without resorting to potentially dangerous aggression. Conning someone out of their banana, while not a particularly nice thing to do, is still better than hitting them over the head for it.
So, communication is used for the purposes of both cooperation and deception. And we spend a great deal of effort determining which is which. Can I trust him? Is she playing fair? Am I getting what I want without giving more than I choose? From the unconditional promises of love, to trade agreements, to diplomatic sparring, to aggressive bluffing, to ruinous back-stabbing, we are constantly faced with the choice to react with willing vulnerability or frigid suspicion. Being played for a fool is *costly* to us and we react accordingly – with shame, frustration, anger. And we learn to protect ourselves, to win more than we lose, to play the game just like everyone else.
So why do we love being lied to? How do we benefit from being wound about in a cunning web of fiction?
It’s my thought that deception is hugely important to us – both the ability to detect it as well as practice it ourselves. And unless you are an accomplished con-artist, the best way to deceive someone is to deceive yourself at the same time. If you believe you are being fair and trustworthy, at least at some level, you are much more likely to secure the cooperation of another. So the ability to subsume selective critical faculties, to believe the story you are weaving, is important. Sinking deep into a well-written tale is excellent practice.
We also enjoy being in on the con. A good author will include the reader in his scheme – giving hints, dropping clues, and following well-worn tropes so that we often have a good idea of where we are being led. At the end of the mystery, when the murderer is unmasked, there is great satisfaction in crowing “Hah! I knew it was the butler all along!” He couldn’t fool us, and thus our confidence in our deception-detection is increased.
But what about the thrilling twists and breathtaking shocks in which we also delight? (Joss Whedon, I’m looking at you!) I think we do like being fooled. We can appreciate a good con, even if it’s on us. Not only do we learn from it, but preserving, even encouraging such characteristics is clearly a human survival trait. It *is* a game, and we admire the ones who know how to play it well. We can’t help but love the charming rogue. We fall for the femme fatale every time. They flatter us with their honey tongues, seduce us with their bedroom eyes, and even when we know better, we allow ourselves to be led down the primrose path because it feels too good, and we surrender to it, begging them to have their wicked way with us.
We may not love being made to feel a fool, but there is a perverse pleasure in being fooled by someone who really knows what they’re doing.