I have recently been playing around with Artificial Intelligence (AI) generated artwork, initially to test the ability to produce graphics for a project I’m planning. More recently, I’ve used them to edit and alter photos of myself by changing my hairstyle and color and inserting various imaginary backgrounds. I’m finding the technology to be somewhat hit or miss currently, but it definitely has potential for many positive and negative uses in the not-to-distant future.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Ministry of Information, where his job is to alter reality to match the Party’s ever-changing propaganda. As a writer, I’ve found myself in a similar situation as I’ve developed my Expanded Universe of Fictional Atlanta. First established in my play, Rebecca Too, when I realized it had a connection to a story I never finished from the late-nineties, it began to take shape with my first collection of stories, Fables of the New South. There, characters who had been either bit players in Rebecca, like Claire Belmonte, or mentioned but not in the cast, like Rebecca’s aunt Rachel, found a life of their own and became major figures in the Expanded Universe.
When I revised the collection after it was reviewed by a beta reader and editor, it was necessary to retcon several situations I had hastily developed while trying to get the volume out by mid-2017. My haste was due to Another Mother, the play based on Rebecca, winning the play-writing award from The Essential Theatre, which was producing it at their festival that summer. As a consequence, anyone who purchased or otherwise ended up with a “Festival Edition” of Fables, as I came to regard the first edition, now has a very different version than the current release. The way I explain the changes is by saying the revisions are part of a different reality.
Writers have the license to create and recreate the reality of the fictional worlds they forge in their stories. Even when the world isn’t some outpost in space or a dark, fantasy realm inhabited by supernatural beings, the characters and situations are fully governed by the author’s imagination and intuition. My characters may share certain traits with actual individuals, and in many instances, I include real people and situations in my fictional creations (within reason) but their actions and motivations are totally my own. True, I do try to step back and let them develop their own identities, but there’s always a little bit of my personality in every one of the characters I create.
If done skillfully enough, the altered reality of fiction can comment on and enhance the world it reflects. Characters can become so realistic that people refer to them as though they’re long-time friends. The most memorable can easily outlive the mortal author who created them. The best work not only will comment on the world beyond the fictional realm, but influence it, as the best science fiction or humanitarian writing has done for ages. Writers can then take on very influential roles in society, becoming part of the collective imagination of whole populations.