Tag Archives: suspension of disbelief

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

When Life is Larger than Life

A writer friend of mine has cautioned me about borrowing storylines too faithfully from real life. Her words of caution read as follows: “Fiction has to make sense; reality doesn’t.”

If a story doesn’t hold together–if information is missing so that readers don’t understand why or how important events happened, if characters undergo situations without learning or growing or changing in any meaningful way, if the conclusion doesn’t leave readers with a sense of satisfaction–it’s considered a failure on behalf of the writer. But these sort of things happen in real life all the time.

Readers who pick up a murder mystery story can rest assured that by the end of the book, they’re going to know whodunnit (and usually how and why). Real life, on the other hand, is filled with examples of murders that were never solved, missing persons that were never found, and criminals who were never brought to justice. These situations, while realistic (indeed, real), don’t make for satisfying murder mystery stories.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to write a successful story in which a mystery remains unsolved – I think of Minority Report, where the hero’s missing (and never found) child provides motivation for his decisions – but the plot of Minority Report is not centered on the missing son.

Another important factor to consider in fiction is suspension of disbelief. If a character or plot point is too outrageous or implausible, it can shock readers out of the story. It can make a serious story unintentionally humorous, ruining the tone and the mood, or it can leave the reader feeling frustrated and disappointed if they thought they were beginning one kind of story and ended up with another. (No spoilers here, but I recently read a book which began as a realistic-seeming crime story and, in a daring move halfway through, a supernatural element was revealed. I thought it was great, but afterwards I found mixed reviews, depending on the willingness of the readers to shelve their disbelief, accept the unexpected supernatural premise, and continue reading.)

So what do you do when your real-life example is so much larger than life that it stretches plausibility–even though it really happened?

Audie Murphy – the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War – later became an actor and played himself in a movie based on his autobiography, To Hell and Back. Murphy himself was not the typical action-hero–he was shorter and skinnier than the archetypal figure–and though he filmed the movie as an adult, he fought when he was still a teenager. Many of us are used to movies “based on a true story” containing gross exaggerations for dramatic effect. In this cas,e though, comparison between historical accounts and the movie suggests that the film understated Murphy’s heroic deeds. In a world where the usual formula is to overstate the fictional version to make a more dramatic story, To Hell and Back is an example of where real life has been toned down to make the story seem plausible to an audience unfamiliar with the actual history.

My writer friend, who is English, has been following with great amusement the saga of Rob Ford (the mayor of Toronto) over the past year. From conflict of interest trials to admitted public intoxication and crack cocaine use, from lewd comments to investigation by police, and with videos of the mayor drunk, swearing and threatening people posted on Youtube, Mayor Ford is like a reality TV show playing out on the nightly news. He’s real. He’s all too real. And he still intends to run for office again.

But my writer friend says, “You couldn’t make him up.”

You couldn’t make him up, because who would believe in him? Who would believe that the mayor of a provincial capital would conduct himself in this fashion? Try swapping Rob Ford for the leader in a military thriller or political drama. How many readers would be able to suspend their disbelief?

Maybe you could get away with him in a screwball comedy or cheesy cartoon–the genres where viewers aren’t supposed to take anything seriously.

“But he’s real,” you say. “It really happened.”

Now that it’s happened, while he’s still public knowledge, a writer could get away with a serious story involving a crackhead mayor. Before the scandal broke–or in ten or twenty years when Ford is forgotten–not a chance.

Fiction is a craft. By all means, borrow ideas or plot points or character concepts from real life, but be ready to revise them to suit the needs of the story. In the end, the goal of fiction isn’t to provide an accurate historical account, but to tell a coherent and engaging story. Sometimes that means simplifying events, adding explanations, and ramping up drama. And sometimes…just sometimes…that means toning characters down, when real life is just too much “larger than life.”