What Can We Believe?

Don’t worry, today’s blog isn’t about theology or philosophy, I’m not going to attempt to answer any of the Big questions (not at 9am after only one cup of coffee anyway). No, today I plan to talk about ‘suspension of disbelief’ and when and where you can push it.

The wonderful thing about writing Fiction, Fantasy or Sci-Fi is that, to an extent you’re excused from ‘real life’ and expected to exercise your imagination for the entertainment of your readers. They expect it, they want it but, for all that creative freedom there are certain areas where readers tend to be more skeptical than in others.

Luckily, settings isn’t one of them. Whether you create a far future tech-scape where individuals broadcast their minds into temporary, loaner bodies and manipulate everything from cars to coffee-makers from the comfort of their homes or an expansive fantasy world where kingdoms sit atop mountains and travel is by means of magical cloud-ships of domesticated, eight headed-dragons there are few realms that the readership won’t accept. As long as there is a means or a character they can identify with who views and interprets the world in  a relatable way you can go to creative town on the setting.

Societies and civilizations. Here, again you have great deal of freedom and even historical precedent to draw on. You can justify just about anything be it Utopian, Dystopian, Socialist oriented or a Fascist Dictatorship that, somehow, works. Just recently I’ve noticed changes in a certain property. Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry, 1965) has always been a vision of acceptance, tolerance and co-operation to me. Threats to the Federation are, by and large, from external sources and it’s through unity that the various crews overcome the clear and present threat, it’s an ideal. However, recently those responsible for the direction of the franchise have chosen to present cracks in the futuristic facade. Self-interest, rogue security branches, and a number of ethically questionable activities from within Star Fleet are becoming more acceptable and I can’t help but wonder, is that simply a response to the direction Game of Thrones (George R.R. Martin, 1996) and it’s television adaptation, has steered audiences in? It’s an interesting question, whether the audience influences the material by consuming certain types or whether the material influences the audience by showing them something they didn’t know they wanted. Very much a ‘chicken and egg’ discussion.

I’ve found, through my own experience of reading and writing, that, the closer you get to individual experience the more critical the audience becomes and that’s good. So, when it comes to plots, politics and general scheming it’s important to remember that, no matter how high or far-reaching any plan starts with an individual. Now they may be planning on behalf of a nation, faction, kingdom or planet but the initial idea and it’s motivation start at the individual level, for super villains and despots this is fine. Depending upon where it goes from there you have opportunity to twist and pervert the original aim. Any study begun by a well-meaning scientist can be weaponized by a military power or exploited for profit by an evil corporation. The thing with plans and schemes is, while you want them to be at least slightly convoluted and misleading, you want that red-herring moment of ‘Aha! Fooled you!’, it still needs to make an amount of sense, whether logical or not. For Camelot 2050 I used the explanation that Morgana le Fay is over fifteen centuries old, her frame of reference for what is logical is nothing like ours and, as a concept, ‘the value of human life’ now means almost nothing to the villain. That alongside her egocentric and overly dramatic persona allowed me to employ some truly monstrous plans and re-interpretations of military strategy but, I’d argue, that it was always a case of the plot driving the narrative and not the other way around.

So, now we come down to reactions to stimuli at the individual level. As a reader I  don’t tend to put books down, not to say I haven’t but it’s a rare occurrence. I remember that I never finished Fatherland by Richard Harris, and I’ve yet to get more than a third through one of the many books about the Gallipoli campaign. Not through any fault of the authors, maybe I find them a little dry and heavy for my tastes but I like to think I’ll go back to them one day. But, there have been a couple of instances recently where I stopped reading because I either didn’t believe the interpretation of the characters presented or didn’t believe the characters reaction to stimuli. Much as there are ways to manipulate your characters and their responses to a given situation it’s important that they stay in character. Often I’ve groaned aloud because a character I love does the wrong thing because, given the situation, it’s what they would do, and there are pages, in some cases books, of established behaviour patterns to support that action. Where it comes to a character doing something infinitely stupid on the barest reasoning and acting contrary to their established personality, I’m afraid that’s a deal-breaker.

At the end of the day there can be any number of rocket-powered dragon-flamingo’s within your pages and the readers will love it, make meme’s and buy merch but, if you lose sight of your characters personalities and motivations then you’ll lose your readers. It’s within the details of characters reactions, interactions and responses that suspension of disbelief is held most tenuously (even though you can probably find stranger/more outlandish real world stories on the internet).

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