Monday, March 26, 2012

Suspending disbelief

Over the weekend, I saw Hunger Games. Twice. It's not the height of cinematic genius, but it was a decent interpretation of a book, it was enjoyable and held onto the tension despite that I already knew what would happen.

This is not a movie review of Hunger Games, though. There are plenty of those out in the wild. Instead, I wanted to talk about the most common complaint I'm reading in the reviews I've run across so far. It sticks out to me because I don't agree. That complaint is one of being able to suspend disbelief. The world is too strange, too alien, too far removed from our own. Quite possibly it is, if you don't know about the world going in. After all, it does one of my favorite world-building things, which is to let the elements of the world stand without explanation, and to hint at a deeper story we're not getting yet.

This lovely image of galaxies merging courtesy of HubbleSite
I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Perhaps I'm more willing to suspend disbelief than literary readers, because I'm always immersing myself in improbable worlds. I don't think so, though. I've run across elements I'm unable or unwilling to wrap my mind around. I've gotten mad at authors for stretching my disbelief too far. I've read literary works where I was unwilling to suspend my disbelief so far.

So why would I be willing to believe that there's a world where magic is as prevalent as technology is in our version of reality, but have trouble with the existence of certain characters or elements in a world I can recognize as our own?

Part of it has to do with how well I trust the author. If an author shows I can trust him or her to handle one thing well, I'm willing to go along with something else I don't recognize. Often, this is handled through emotional veracity. Charles de Lint, for example, doesn't have people swallowing whole the idea of a fae world existing alongside our own. He has people who think the main characters are crazy, or who need persuading that what they're seeing is really happening. They react with fear, disbelief, and a number of emotions I might expect anyone I know to react with. Similarly, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is closed-off in a way I can understand, in a world where there's a danger she'll be sent off to kill a male classmate. She clings to what remains of her family and shuts out everyone else, for fear of the gut-wrenching loss of someone she loves.

It doesn't have to be the characters' emotions, though being able to relate to people in strange situations seems the most effective strategy. If characters react either in a similar way as I would, or in a way I can understand, I can stomach a lot more strangeness than I would if they take it for granted.

That works well for character-driven stories, but what are those writing plot- or concept-driven novels to do? In that case, I would advise showing the reader can trust you in other ways. If not the characters and how real they feel, make sure the concept is really well-researched. If you're doing a weird twist on the world of commercial fishing, make sure you understand fishing, boats, ocean currents, weather patterns, and everything the characters would know, inside and out. Be respectful of your source material, and get everything else exactly right.

After all, if you have a weird twist, but you get some other elements wrong, it won't look like you did it on purpose. It'll look like you just don't understand it.


  1. The most unbelievable, incomprehensible place in L. Frank Baum's _The Wonderful Wizard of Oz_ is Kansas.

    1. I wouldn't know, having never read them. But I can believe it.

  2. It's interesting that people say that, haven't seen the movie yet, but I have read the books, yet they were willing to suspend belief for things like The Running Man and Battle Royale.

    1. The concepts are quite similar. I have no idea why a more fully-realized world should be harder to grasp. But then, it's hard to pretend I didn't read the books before I saw the movie. I have no idea what might be missing, if you haven't read the books.