“The Fiction of Credibility”

I’m writing a fictional story that takes place in 1969. When the main character, Patsy, is anticipating the arrival of the boy she’s in love with, a boy she hasn’t seen in nearly a year, I describe her feeling “both nervous and excited,” and what immediately comes to mind about the ambivalence of her feeling, and how to describe it, is the scene from the movie Armageddon in which Oscar, played by Owen Wilson, is being strapped into the shuttle which will be launched into space on a mission to destroy an asteroid before it annihilates the Earth. When asked how he’s doing, Oscar says he’s got “that excited, scared feeling,” which he then tries to articulate: “Like 98% excited, 2% scared . . . or maybe it’s more . . . it could be 98% scared, 2% excited . . . but that’s what makes it so intense . . . it’s so confused . . .” Wilson provides a rambling, somewhat jittery description of what Oscar’s feeling, which, I think, would capture Patsy’s anticipation perfectly, and I’m halfway through writing an allusion to the scene from Armageddon in an attempt to define Patsy’s emotive state when it occurs to me that the movie wasn’t released until 1998, thirty years after the purported time of Patsy’s boyfriend’s arrival.

The moment presents a dilemma. The feeling of nervousness and excitement, it seems to me, is the same between the two characters, and so the allusion to the scene in Armageddon may help a film-nursed Twenty-First Century reader to understand how Patsy felt in 1969, pumped and panicked at once. Since I am writing Patsy’s story in the third-person point of view, it is entirely conceivable to have my narrator make such a connection. It is, after all, fiction. And yet, as I am using the third person limited perspective—that is, from Patsy’s viewpoint—I would be ignoring issues of character credibility by having her allude to moments that, in 1969, have yet to exist. Even if I reframe Oscar’s “excited, scared feeling” in a perfectly plausible scenario, place it in a 1968-like film, or describe it in a trope of “as if,” a modern reader might in recognizing the parallel also dismiss Patsy’s moment as a knock-off.

I first saw Armageddon in 1999 or 2000 when I bought a used VHS edition on sale from Family Video. It is the same tape I reviewed just moments ago to make sure I was recalling Oscar’s words accurately. I found it behind the DVDs in my TV cabinet; fortunately, I still have a VCR. But who, in 1968, would have imagined that such things as video cassette recorders and tapes would become technologically affordable in thirty years, let alone prevalent, let alone [nearly] obsolete. (Not to mention space shuttles—in Patsy’s day, Neil Armstrong has yet to walk on the moon.)

Fiction, it seems, allows us to give our characters in the past a good deal of prescience, especially when it comes to things like human feelings, which I’m guessing have changed little over the millennia, and then mostly in terms of their articulation or interpretation, and less in their actuality. Basic human emotions haven’t evolved in the way that technology has; I would like to think that we share the same feelings, or fears, or pleasures, or love, as people did in 1969, or 1669, or even 569 B.C. Don’t we still read and perform Shakespeare or Aeschylus for the intensity of familiar emotion? And yet (some argue) the world is very different now, much more complex, and so the need to address human relationships within that complexity, to modernize them, has become more complicated because we now have more triggers, more exposure to sensory detail that would stimulate feelings, and so as a result we need to find new ways to evoke the human condition in terms of relativity! light years! deconstruction! quarks and black holes!

If nothing else, we certainly have more people in the world, more diversity, more compex individual choices, more opportunities for love. But does that make the love any one person feels any different? Perhaps not. Yet it does make our description of what we’re feeling—or of what our characters are feeling—more difficult. Too common an allusion and we lose credibility to cliché; too far-fetched an allusion and we lose credibility to inauthenticity.

How little I knew in 1969! How often, at eighteen, was I confronted with feelings both exciting and scary, with confusion or ambivalence, similar to what Patsy feels as she anticipates the arrival of the boy she hasn’t seen in a year, a boy she might be in love with, the boy who is me actually, though highly fictionalized, so I don’t ever have to relive those feelings again, or even describe them accurately, even if I could.

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About Phillip Sterling

Phillip Sterling is the author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told, a collection of short fiction (Wayne State University Press), Mutual Shores (poetry), and four chapbook length series of poems, the most recent of which is And for All This: Poems from Isle Royale (Ridgeway Press 2015). His story “kidnappingtax.blogspot.gov” won the 2015 Monstrosities of the Midway contest, and his entry “Angels, We Have Heard” won the 3rd Annual Charles Dickens Christmas Fiction Contest sponsored by Michiganders Post. A new book of poetry, titled And Then Snow, is scheduled for release from Main Street Rag Press in spring 2017. Many of his flash fiction pieces can be found online.