Hi again everyone!
I’m continuing my series on suspension of disbelief with a few tips and pointers on how it can affect “mainstream fiction” and will even make a bit of a note of its use in nonfiction. I’ll make use of a few examples and hopefully help you see ways that using these techniques can elevate your writing in all genres.
Let’s start by looking at how I’m defining mainstream fiction, since I’m broadening the scope for this post. I’ve heard some people call it contemporary fiction, but that view is a little too narrow for what we’re looking at, since the term contemporary would exclude works like The Bronze Bow and The Red Badge of Courage, both works of historical fiction. So normally, mainstream fiction is fiction that portrays the world as it is, without magic and without science that is beyond its timeframe. Anthro fiction that doesn’t make use of advanced science or magic is also going to fall into this category as far as suspension of disbelief goes, since while it’s not really mainstream fiction, it doesn’t have the elements that make SF&F difficult.
So it probably sounds pretty easy to keep things believable in a setting like that. You’re probably thinking, “Chaaya, you crazy wolf, you’re just digging for additional journal material!” and in part you’d be right. wink I’m also including it because it’s something that I’ve seen author’s struggle with across all genres. By this point in the series, I’m going to guess that you now have a pretty good idea of how suspension of disbelief works. Taking that into account, I’m only going to cover two of the biggest culprits.
The first is characterization. Believe me when I say, I can write a whole series on just that. When you’re dealing with a foreign world, some things are assumed to be different in how your characters think and act. For instance, a vykati isn’t going to react to some things the same way a human will. In The Wolf’s Pawn, Fenther nearly gets killed by Sajani when he tells her that if she takes on the elves, she’ll end up dead just like her mother. This is supposed to be a cryptic scene. I probably should have given a little more explanation of what was going on, but I wanted it to be a kind of “huh, why’d she do that?” scene. The problem that vykati would have with it, is that it compares the actions of a living person with those of dead person. Comparing to a national hero, like Sajani’s mother, amplifies the mistake. While cryptic and even a little confusing, it’s easy for the reader to shrug and go, “must be a wolf thing.”
Now let’s look at it as if Sajani were human. She’d seem a little psycho if she just randomly tries to kill people over snide comments. Believable for some humans, but not believable for someone I’m trying to portray as a very skilled leader.
Avoiding this mistake is very easy: base you characters on real people. I’m not saying put real people in your stories, but by taking examples from what you’ve seen in real life, you not only give depth the character, you make her believable. Another example: Colonel Lahnk. He’s based on a chaplain that I met at Ft. Hood (funny side note, my publisher met him too and caught the reference right away). I have a lot of respect for the real man, so I’m not going to name him here, but I noticed the one time I met him that the cuffs on his uniform were frayed. As a sergeant, I wanted to correct him, but felt like the other NCOs that worked directly with him should be the ones to say something. I talked to one at his office and found that the chaplain was corrected constantly, usually multiple times a day, but didn’t care. In the whole of the US army, there’re only two chaplains at any given time with a rank higher than colonel. The chances of him ever seeing promotion were next to nil and forcing him to retire meant an awesome pension. There was no reason to care. He liked his job but wasn’t going to stress over it. Take that mentality and put it on one of the command officers I worked for, and viola, an interesting and, I think, believable character.
Alrighty, so now we look at the other common problem area: science. And now you’re thinking, “I think this wolf must have had some special mushrooms with her last meal. Didn’t we talk about science last week?” If you can get past his outdated cultural references, Mark Twain’s “Fennimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” (1895) is a great read on this. In it, he talks about how Cooper’s main character, Natty Bumppo, hits a nail on the head from one hundred yards away. Anyone see a problem with this? Bueller? Bueller?
For those that may have missed it, imagine you’re standing at the base of a goal post on a football field and looking at a fly on the opposing goal post. That’s about the challenge that Twain presents: “…this nail-head is a hundred yards from the marksmen, and could not be seen at that distance, no matter what its color might be. How far can the best eyes see a common housefly? A hundred yards? It is quite impossible.”
And I think, as far as suspension of disbelief in regard to what is scientifically possible goes, that example…
…hits the nail on the head.
Don’t hurt me.
The overall point being: you can get away with small discrepancies in fantasy and science fiction, but you can’t in mainstream fiction. Vykati might have better eyesight or a different culture, but you can’t change humans and the human condition and still be standing firmly on the ground of this genre.
And don’t think you can get away with it in non-fiction either. Even non-fiction, if presented in a readable format, is going to “fill in some spaces,” particularly in dialogue. (I touched on dialogue in a previous post.)
I hope you’ve found this helpful. Feel free to share the link and give credit. I write these to give aspiring authors a well-grounded source of information, devoid of the “woo is me, the misunderstood artiste” mentality so prevalent in self-helps these days.
Next week, I’ll be writing about something I’ve heard referred to as both rhythm and pacing: how to regulate the flow of your story to enhance the reader’s perception during different types of scenes.