Friday, May 11, 2012

A Musing on Believability and Fiction

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1817, coined the term suspension of disbelief - although in truth the concept behind the term is as old as fiction itself. After all, every time we sit down to watch a movie, or read a book, or tune in to our favourite television show, we suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to temporarily forget, while we're engaged as a viewer or reader (or even player), that this is a work of fiction...

However, on occasion it feels that authors - in all mediums - try and take advantage of our kindness in this respect. "I want to believe" says the media consumer and so the author takes this as an excuse to stack up all manner of inconsistencies, plot holes, unrealistic behaviour and the like - all to the carrion cry of  "you've got to suspend your disbelief!"

I am a big believer in believability. Which isn't to say that I eschew anything that is not grounded in reality; not at all. But I do think Stephen King had it spot on when he said "Fiction is the truth inside the lie."

The best imaginative fiction realises this, it realises that in order to give the reader or viewer a reason to suspend their disbelief it needs to deliver them a world that is truthful, no matter how fantastical it might be. And by truthful, I mean that the world is internally consistent because - through that - it is possible to deliver something that is believable. When it comes to fantasy, for example, I am quite happy to accept all manner of magical goings-on; but I also want a world that is bound within its own set of rules. I don't need to know how magic works but I do need to see that the use of magic is consistent and that, even if I don't yet fully grasp the internal logic of the world, I know there is one.

The types of believability involved in the story world will vary depending upon the theme or genre. In fantasy, internal consistency is the key to developing a living, breathing world. In science fiction, there is - especially in hard SF - an expectation that the fantastical will be (or least, can be) rationalised.

At one end of the spectrum, there are books such as the Harry Potter series or the space operas of Iain M Banks - books with vastly colourful story worlds (or indeed Universes) that spend very little time explaining the mechanics but which deliver cohesive and consistent experiences. At the other end of the spectrum, there are the fantasy novels of Brandon Sanderson (who goes to great lengths to develop mechanics to explain how magic works and its limitations) or the hard SF of Stephen Baxter (chock full of more astrophysics than you can throw a stick at). But all of them succeed because their worlds are incredibly well thought out and their internal consistency is maintained to a high standard throughout.

It is perhaps most important to remember that the suspension of disbelief is a favour afforded to the author by the consumer of fiction; it is not a shield that can be levelled against any and all criticism. The consumer of fiction wants to believe. As writers, we just need to make sure that we reward that belief with worlds that are consistent and fully realised,  with characters whose motivations and behaviour make sense, with plots that are internally logical and which are not overly dependent upon coincidence and contrivance.

After all, the best fantastical fiction may create worlds that are far removed from our own but, in their own way, they can feel just as consistent and just as believable...

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