I’m not alone.
Those are probably the three most important words in the English language when it comes to writing, and creating art in general.
At least, if you were wondering my opinion, it’s that these words are important.
A lot of writing is creative. Pure fantasy writer, you’re always world building, creating new species and magic and rules for how a world will operate. If you’re writing a drama, you’re writing a story about people who don’t actually exist doing things that are of no consequence in the real world. If you’re writing a comedy, you’re writing about absurd situations, most of which aren't probable.
In short, writing is a lot of creating elaborate lies to entrance your readers with.
But that’s not why people watch or read or consume what you’re putting out there. No, most powerful works aren’t the ones that tell the most elaborate lies.
The works that resonate are the ones that tell the most profound truths within those lies.
The works that give us the greatest sense of catharsis of the ones that make us take a step back, and exclaim to ourselves: I’m not alone.
Someone else, even if they’re only a fictional character, has felt this way before. Someone that isn’t me is able to articulate a feeling I’ve long felt, and wanted words to describe. If someone else has experienced this, it gives me the words put my own experience into. It also, if it’s something I’m feeling guilty about, gives me release.
I’m not alone.
This ultimately comes down to the difference between entertainment and art—a topic that has been debated since the dawn of art.
If you ask me—and if you're reading this article, then I'll assume you have for all intents and purposes—the difference between art and entertainment is the same difference as truth and lies.
Entertainment is telling lies. Elaborate lies. Lies that are intended to entertain, to take the audience out of reality, and to bring them into a wonderful story—a story filled with lies that will entice the senses and send pleasurable chemicals through the brain.
Art is the opposite. Art can be inside an entertaining narrative, but where entertainment is elaborate, art is raw. Where entertainment entices the senses, art strips through them. Where entertainment sends pleasurable chemicals through the brain, art brings the chemicals out by engaging truths that were locked there all along.
Let's explore some characters in literature, ones who walk on the line of truth and lies. Let's look at what makes them entertaining, and what makes them art.
SPIKE, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Spike puts up a real tough guy image. It's entertaining to watch. In season 2, he was intended to be a one-off character. Big bad, killed, then he's gone. He gets some pretty good quips along the way, too. He was so entertaining in his big bad image that the audience wanted to see him in more episodes. Spike was brought back until the end of Buffy, even becoming a series regular in Season 4. But it wasn't until later episodes in Season 5, when we saw him vulnerable, that he really got a story arc. He was heartbroken, he was vulnerable in his love for Buffy, he got interesting when we saw the truth in his character: that all he wanted was love.
GARAK, Star Trek Deep Space Nine
This is a character well known for telling lies. One of his most loved quotes is, "The truth is usually an excuse for a lack of imagination." But . . . do we really like Garak because he tells a lot of lies? Or, are we amazed by Garak because we see glimpses of the truth through the lies? He isn't able to keep his facade up all the time. We are entertained by the web of lies he tells, but we keep watching him because we crave the truth behind every lie. Though there is some debate as to what his truth is, I hypothesise that it's his own self-loathing: he wishes he were better.
Winnowill puts on a big show of being evil, of using her healing powers to cause pain to others, of insisting she feels no remorse. What's more, she sticks to her guns and harms others even when given the chance (and she's given many) to turn around and be healed. Winnowill makes an intriguing, threatening, and frightening villain . . . but a complex and darkly beautiful villain when we realise she is the absence of love. We don't read about Winnowill because she's evil. We read about her, and are moved by her, when she becomes vulnerable—when she is so close to seeing the truth of her brokenness, but ultimately chooses to stay the same.
These three characters are only three in a myriad of characters who walk the line between truth and lies. Each one draws us in with our lies. But, they keep us there and make us think about ourselves through the truths they represent. The desire to be loved, the presence of self loathing, the fear of change even for the better . . .
The moments with these characters that show their truths help us gain a more intimate understanding of the characters—and, through watching the characters, of ourselves.
When you watch Spike, you're pulled in because don't we all want to be loved? You're not alone if the answer is yes.
When you watch Garak, you want to know more about his self loathing . . . do you ever spend time hating yourself? You're not alone if the answer is yes.
When you read about Winnowill, isn't it intriguing how she resists healing? Have you ever decided to stay broken because it was less frightening? You're not alone if the answer is yes.
The lies are entertaining. But the truth? Nothing makes us feel less alone in the universe than watching a character act out a truth we've been feeling—especially if it was an unpleasant truth we'd rather not have faced at all.
Basically, looking at the big picture, art impacts the audience in a more intimate way than entertainment.
The tool that art uses to do this is truth. When an artist puts truth and raw honesty into their work, it comes through to the audience.
When there is truth in work, the audience senses it. The truth makes them say I am not alone.
People may come from all walks of life, but fundamentally we experience the same things: loneliness, heartbreak, love, connection, the list goes on. Art explores these universal truths and makes the audience exclaim . . .
I’m not alone.