Illusion and reality, the story within the story, truth and lies—these are the basic challenges that a contemporary hero must face. The protagonist (man, woman, young adult, alien, robot, whatever…) comes up against a deception that needs to be unmasked—a distortion of reality that has to be rectified. This deception about the true nature of reality could involve the discovery of secret information, a revelation of some form, or witnessing an event. The protagonist acts out of social consciousness or a belief in doing the right thing. This belief takes them into conflict with a repressive force, a corrupt organisation, or a criminal overlord. The battle may turn out to be a physical fight, but it also about persuasion, getting other people to change their perception of reality. A change in perception can also come about through teaching and nurture: inspiring hope in a forgotten community, for example, or debunking a harmful myth with scientific fact. As a fighter or as a teacher, the protagonist challenges the status quo and champions change.
In storytelling, this can be approached directly or through some metaphoric device. The synthetically generated reality of Vanilla sky, the enclosed reality-TV island of The Truman Show, and computer-generated-dream of The Matrix are all metaphors for protagonists struggling to find out what is real and what is fake. The lie of the fake world must be exposed and transcended in order for the hero to become themselves. Alternatively, the heroes in I, Daniel Blake, Moonlight, and Serpico all challenge the prevailing power (a callous bureaucratic system; school bullies; endemic Police corruption). They’re attempting to get people to see the lie or injustice that exists around them. Failure to notice this is tantamount to living a false life.
The hero in Total Recall is living with implanted memories, and has to discover who he is. Many of Philip K Dick’s stories are about illusion and reality in a world permeated with simulations of the ‘real’ things. In Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? The hero is faced with having to distinguish between the real people and the androids, but his investigation leads him reconsider how different the two really are.
In parallel to the characters in a story working out the nature of reality, the reader is also decoding the story and their interactions. An important distinction between storytelling as ‘entertainment’ and ‘escapism’, as opposed to ‘art’ (in the loose sense) is that art should provoke some form of re-evaluation about who, what and where we are. In other words, to question reality. Minimalist art, for example, forces us to reconsider the space we are in—the space around the artwork and our spatial relationship to the art object. Ambitious storytelling seeks to affect our perception of reality, so show us something we have not noticed before. Fiction seduces an audience into believing a fake ‘story’ world so that the author can reveal something about the real one. In a simplistic way, you could say that about any art form.
Of course, fiction also spreads lies about the world. The Second World War film, Where Eagles Dare works brilliantly as both entertainment and escapism, but it creates a lie about military combat—a childish fantasy that war is fun. Alternatively, Attack and Paths of Glory (within the limitations of a Hollywood system) show war as a horrific tragedy.
Whether it’s Little Red Riding Hood or Blade Runner 2049, questioning the nature of reality goes to the very heart of storytelling.