This is a Space Alien. True or False?

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions to ask yourself when designing a major character is what does that person think is “true.”

Such issues come up frequently in SF/F.  Characters learn that those they’ve worshiped as gods are mere mortals – perhaps suffering from delusions of grandeur, perhaps kind souls willing to accept the burdens of presumed deity to lead their followers toward higher ideals.  Or they learn that what they have taken for “the world” is a spaceship.  Or science reveals the existence of parallel universes that lead to questions of what – if anything – is “real” and absolute.

Another popular SF/F gambit is to rewrite some religious, mythological, or historical event in a fashion that provides an alternate explanation for why events unfolded in the manner that they did.  Tim Powers does this frequently, rearranging actual historical events so that his interpretation makes more sense than does actual history.  A device – such as the Mask featured in Fred Saberhagen’s novel Mask of the Sun (and its offspring, the rather cool collection Golden Reflections, edited by Joan Saberhagen and Bob Vardeman) –  might enable probabilities to be manipulated.

Nor do these truths need to be the “big truths” of religious faith or patriotism or some philosophical ideal.  Indeed, sometimes the smaller truths define a person even more – and a revelation that violates those small, personal truths can lead to considerable upheaval.

Let’s take a character – call him Oscar – who believes with all his heart that his mother was a virtuous woman who was a virgin when she married and never strayed thereafter.  What would happen to Oscar if he learned that she’d had a lover beforehand?  Even if that lover had been her future husband, still, if Oscar had lived a life of strict self-discipline because he wanted to live up to his mother’s example, then he might feel as if the foundations of his behavior had been shattered.  He might wonder if all his self-sacrifice was worth the effort.

Or perhaps Oscar wasn’t at all self-disciplined and had spent most of his life lambasting himself for not being able to live up to his mother’s example.  How would he feel if he learned that the ideal never existed?

What if he found that his virgin angel mother hadn’t just “slipped once” but had been far from either virgin or angel?   Then how would he react?  How would his relationship with his mother change?  How would his own behavior change?  Would he go wild in reaction?  Would he become a sanctimonious prude, determined to show her up?

Don’t forget the ripple effect!  How would Oscar’s relationship with the rest of his family change – especially if he learned that one or more people he trusted had been lying to him?   These might have been outright lies or lies of omission – withholding information, rather than directly distorting it.  Which would be worse?

Would Oscar be angry?  Resentful?  Would he feel foolish – wondering if people had been sniggering behind his back all this time?  Maybe he’d be a bighearted person who would decide that the failings of long ago are to be forgiven.  Still, I wonder if he’d ever trust easily again.

The “truth” doesn’t need to be related to sex, of course.  Honesty is another area around which “truth” tends to form.  What if Oscar had always believed his father had been an honest businessman or politician, then learned that his father had been systematically embezzling or accepting bribes?

What if Oscar was a young knight who strove to live up to the example of his valorous king and ruler only to learn that the king had, in his own days as a fighter, been less than knightly?  What if Oscar was a spaceship pilot who believed that the ships he took out into the void were the result of careful construction and meticulous planning, only to learn that the science was dubious, the design haphazard, and his own life viewed as disposable?

What happens when heartfelt truths are neither violated nor betrayed, but come up against other interpretations of reality?  Monotheism confronting polytheism, both sincerely believed in, provides good grounds for internal conflict.  So does the conflict between sociological or political philosophies such as socialism, capitalism, and totalitarianism.

Leaving aside the “heavy” issues for a moment…  Even changes in what is known to be “true” about a thing can be fun.  I’ve always thought that Bilbo wasn’t as grimly afraid of the One Ring as he should have been because he couldn’t help but think of it as a sort of toy that let him play pranks.  In his charming “Chronicles of Prydain,” Lloyd Alexander has the Golden Pelydryn, a powerful magical orb, remain hidden in plain sight, the “bauble” of the young, seemingly frivolous, chatterbox Princess Eilonwy.

The odd thing is that, even when everyone in Eilonwy’s circle knows that the “bauble” is far more than a bauble, still, truth is not enough to restore to it appropriate wonder and awe.

“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate.

Whatever the answer, I’ll offer that knowing what truths your characters hold near to their hearts is the best way to make them come to life.


10 Responses to “Truth?”

  1. Paul Genesse Says:


  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Speaking of the great truths of monotheism, Bob Altemeyer in The Authoritarians (which is a fun book, and free as a pdf) pointed out that one of the great truths of Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus, reads a bit like Rashomon if you read all four accounts of it in the Gospels side by side. (That would be Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20, if, like me, you want to look it up). I suspect it says something about how belief affects perceptions of truth that this isn’t more common knowledge.

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    This topic is very close to one of my favorite sayings: “Question reality”. All of the situations above apply not only to SF/F, but also to real life (whatever that is! 🙂 ) Many thanks, Jane and Heteromeles, for the hints for reading material; I’ll definitely check out Mask of the Sun, Golden Reflections, and The Authoritarians. (Can anyone here tell me how to make an underline whilst writing on a web page? I wanted to underline the book titles!)

    • janelindskold Says:

      I have a story in GOLDEN REFLECTIONS (one way to emphasize titles and _Mask of the Sun_ (another way to indicate underlining) is my favorite Fred Saberhagen novel.

      I have a feeling that the usual keyboard commands will eventually make their way into user-friendly sites like this,but right now they call up other things.

  4. Heteromeles Says:

    I can’t show the command, but it’s basic html: You put the instructions (i to start italicizing, /i to stop italicizing, u and /u for underlining, etc), enclose these inside arrow signs “>” and “<" (reverse these. I'm trying to not make an instruction).

    Now, since I can't edit this before posting it, we'll see how this turns out. If you don't want to look up the basic formatting tags for html, you need to approach it sort of like the magic in Wizard of Earthsea, where you have to listen to hear the real word behind the rhyme when learning the spell, because Symbols Have Power In Online Reality.

  5. Julie Bloch Says:

    Thank you! (u I’ll try it! /u

  6. Julie Bloch Says:

    Bummer. I guess those little pointy bits *are* essential. 🙂 I don’t have them on my e-reader. Well, anyhow, I wanted to thank you for the tip about (underline) The Authoritarians. (Free! Yay!). I’m about halfway through it… good reading; the guy is *funny*! But the info is sometimes scary…

  7. Paul Says:

    I just finished one of Robert Parker’s old Spensers, “Back Story,” that uses this very premise. A young woman wants Spenser to find who killed her mother 27 years earlier. Spenser unearths truths that upset his client to the point where she doesn’t want to know more and fires him (but too late, he’s too heavily involved in what truths are coming out…)

    • janelindskold Says:

      Agatha Christie also used it well in one of her novels… I think it was _Elephants Can Remember_. A young woman comes to Ariadne Oliver and says: “I want to know if my mother killed my father or my father killed my mother.”

      I’ve a weakness for the “old sins have long shadows” sort of story, but I think it’s important to remember that Truth can be used for more subtle characterization as well.

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