When I began submitting short stories, the editors bounced them back with comments such as “characters not believable” or “no suspension of disbelief.” This usually happened when I included a real-life event. I never understood why using real events didn’t work, but I found that embellishing the details helped my cause.
All fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. Basically, we’re trying to convince the reader that the characters and settings in our stories are real, and that the events depicted could happen in everyday life. In horror, fantasy, and science fiction, we’re talking about a giant suspension of disbelief.
We can convince readers our stories are believable by testing details for plausibility and proving that each event is a natural outgrowth from the one preceding it in the novel. For example, I wouldn’t have a blizzard in Florida or palm trees in Alaska, unless I prepared a foundation in my story to make that possible.
Genre fiction introduces a new world with new rules. Once you’ve set up your world and establish your rules, you have to consistently follow your rules if you want your story to be believable. For example, you can’t have a vampire shy away from religious objects in Chapter One and wear them in Chapter Five unless you’ve established a profound change in him.
One thing that I’ve struggled with is inconsistency in characters. I see this flaw in many books and movies, too. I could never understand how someone could be next to dying on television, and then two days later, back on the job. It doesn’t work that way in a real-life hospital. At least have the hero do some time in Physical Therapy.
If I’m reading a book about a hero with a phobia of heights, and by Chapter Five, he’s scampering up a ten-story building to rescue his beloved, I start to wonder. That character had better be sweating putty balls as he climbs. If he goes up the building calm and cool, that’s going to ruin my suspension of disbelief. I will probably set down the book and head for the nearest balloon store.
My Steel Rose protag has severe hand arthritis. Does she battle a monster? Of course. She has to draw on her strengths to fight. I gave her a long nap before the attack so she could stay alert and think fast. I’m not going to tell you if she survives because that’d be giving away the story.
I’m struggling with inconsistency now in my current WOP, and my writer buddies calls me on it when my protag acts out of character. That is a good critique group. One thing I’ve found helpful was using a calendar. Keeping track of the months in which events happen enables me to write the setting appropriately.
How do you deal with suspension of disbelief and consistency with your characters? I’d love to hear about your experiences.
I’m so sorry I am coming into this discussion so late but I have found some editors who have told me there is no basis for something supernatural in a story and another telling me; well the story is a supernatural one so what is the problem. Because my horror stories are generally categorized as ‘weird fiction’ I just try to make them as human as possible but finding themselves in circumstances that are not real. I try to research the era in which I have placed a character; the dress; the way of life; eve idioms of speech to support the character; sometimes successful and sometimes not. Thank you.
Great article, Barbara, with some helpful tips for writers. I don’t write horror or sci fi, but I have written a book about bullying for middle school kids, which is making the rounds in hopes of finding a home. When I wrote it, I tried to become the character — to walk, talk and breathe like him. If I found myself thinking of doing something out of character, the way Elliot would do it, I said, “Hey, that’s not what he would say or do and sliipped back into the fourteen-year-old’s skin.
I agree that keeping characters consistent is vital to good story telling. There can be change but the change has to make sense. I hate it when a writer or film maker takes a cheap shot at a favourite character to, say, buy laughs. This was done all too often in the Star Trek movie Shatner directed. Scotty was the main victim. After that I hoped never to see Shatner in the driver’s seat of a movie ever again. The Star Trek books Shatner wrote were so strongly centered on Kirk no other character really got much of a look in. I didn’t like that, either.
I feel that susension of disbelief is helped along by mixing real life places that the writer not only is knowledgeable about but has a certain love for with the truly fictional. In my novel Desk Job I have written about the lion’s head adornments to the town hall building at Town Hall, Sydney because they have a uniqueness about them and they are real. Also the town hall building is situated on what once was an old cemetery. This is not made up but for real. A body was recently unearthed there during work on the building which required excavation. The body was that of a convict going back to a time when there were convicts sent out from England. If I decide to populate the town hall building’s courtyard with the spirits of the dead I think that is fair enough. I think there is enough reality to make suspension of disbelief easier for the reader. Besides, who am I to say there couldn’t be ghosts hanging around the town hall area?
I remember a failed Australian cop television show in which it is obvious at the conclusion of an episode that a particular cop has been short in the leg. Next episode, however, we discover that he had really been shot in the arm. That was one reason the show didn’t work. Another reason was one of the cadet cops bursting into tears at the drop of a hat. Very dramatic I’m sure but it makes her totally unbelievable as someone wanting to join the police force. Cops as well as firemen do shed tears after a really tough shift but they do it after the shift is over and not before. And it is not something they would readily do in front of the public. A certain amount of self control goes with both jobs and the public is aware of this. A life might depend on you holding yourself together and getting on with what you need to get on with.
As for keeping it real with my own characters, I tend to tie them into a place and a time. Where they grew up is important as well as past experiences. Not everything I know abouty a parrticular character will make it into a short story or novel but this background does help me suspend disbelief for myself and that is a good start.
Thanks, Rod. What you say about officers and tears are oh, so true. The same goes for medical people. If something happens that provokes tears, a nurse might say, “excuse me, something got in my eye.” I used to love General Hospital but I didn’t find their characters realistic. In real life, most people don’t marry four and five times.
Barbara of the Balloons
I assume that your character is being bullied. I, too, was bullied when I was fourteen, so if you want to run any questions by me, I’d be glad to help. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog.
Barbara of the Balloons
I’ve been through bullying in a polically correct sort of way so, like Kafka, I am not keen on the government idea that one suit fits all and that certain people can’t be bulliesbecause they don’t match the profile of a bully. This is pretty clear in Desk Job and in some of my other writing. Good luck Caterine on your book. Lyn McConchie’s Troll books cover bullying and they are written for kids.