Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Being Realistic: How to Avoid Straining Your Readers' Suspension of Disbelief

You know when you're sitting on the couch on a Saturday, and an action flick you really like comes on? It's a lazy day, so you sit there and you watch for a while. You're really enjoying it, and then right when you're about to be fully submerged in the movie the lead spouts some childish nonsense that the censors put in to replace his much more profane catch phrase. That feeling of snapping back to reality and losing interest in what you're looking at is the sensation of your suspension of disbelief snapping.

One of those bad boys goes, they all go.
Whether or not your characters choose to say "fuck" (a topic I've already covered in this blog post) is not the issue; the issue is whether or not the scenario you're painting for your readers is believable. Regardless of how spectacular, or how abnormal the world you're painting is, if the reality you create is detailed enough to pass inspection then readers will accept your more bizarre elements.

But My Story Has Dragons and Sorcery! People Don't Read That For Realism!

Yes they do. This is a common complaint from a lot of writers who think that because their books focus on an extreme form of escapism that they don't have to do the hard work of realistic storytelling. Quite the opposite; writers in more extreme worlds have to be even more realistic in order to get us to swallow the rest of the package without question.

Nope... no questions here.
Here's what I mean by that. Say your story has really big, really hard to swallow elements in it; medieval fantasy in a non-existent world (A Song of Ice and Fire), a globe-spanning tale where a normal man in the modern day gets caught up in the affairs of gods (American Gods), or maybe a pandemic of the living dead practically destroyed civilization as we know it, and later generations have had to adapt (The Newsflesh Trilogy). Now, the more unrealistic the elephant in your living room is, the more in-depth you need to go so that people don't notice it.

The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the setting for a great deal of A Song of Ice and Fire are completely made up. But because George R. R. Martin spins an intricate web of history, and because he built these kingdoms with everything from the symbols on their flags to the countryside they inhabit, they feel like they could be real places.  Because all that work has gone into breathing soul into the setting, no one questions it when dragons are reborn into the world. The same logic applies to Neil Gaiman's American Gods; because such detail is paid to the world these beings inhabit the gods feel like an organic part of that world. As such their presence is accepted by the reader without much question. In The Newsflesh Trilogy by Mira Grant the steps taken to render a world that's survived and altered to grow past zombies becoming a normal thing is occasionally staggering. An entire generation who carries guns everywhere they go, who avoids big meeting places, and who doesn't think twice about taking a dozen or more blood tests every day takes such exhaustive work to detail that when political conspiracy is introduced the reader doesn't even think to question it.

That's what I mean by realism. It doesn't mean you can't have impossible things; it means that those impossible things need to be diced up in such a way that the reader never, ever stops and questions what he or she is being told.

But Stories Are About People!

Right you are again bold, italic text. The world a story is set in, its history and mechanics, are set dressing; if you do it right, the audience will never notice it's there. People are here to see the actors, in this case your characters, solving whatever puzzling plot you've put forth. If characters are flat, boring, or unrealistic though, then readers are going to shut the book and lose interest.

I touched on this a little bit in this blog post here, but realism as it affects a cast is a touchy balancing act at the best of times. Authors need to know who their characters are, what their life experiences have been, and they need to be able to convince the reader through tricky legerdemain that these characters could be real people even though they obviously aren't real. Many times they aren't even people.

So what you're saying is...
As always, examples work best. So let's take a look at the Frankenstein monster. During the monster's pow-wow with its creator in the frozen wastes of the mountains we get its entire life story. We get to see how it goes from being a child in the body of a giant to a thinking, intelligent creature capable of speech, thought, reading and writing. We, as the audience, see how the monster has become who and what it is in a fairly short time frame, and that exposition dump turns the monster from some murderous, savage creature into a being that is trying to make some sense of its life, its feelings, and its power. Nothing we see the monster do ever seems unrealistic because we know him; we know what he wants, how he feels, and how he thinks. He is, for all intents and purposes, real to us. Most importantly his actions are in character.

All characters have histories, and those histories made them who they are. By showing these histories in big and little ways characters' actions become understandable. A schoolteacher who is needlessly harsh on one particular student might seem like a stock bad guy, but if you reveal that the student's parents were rivals or even enemies of the teacher in question then it becomes clear that he simply hasn't been able to put those demons to rest and is extracting a kind of vicarious revenge. While that's still petty, it's believable and kind of sad. It shows that the teacher isn't just some cartoonish villain, but rather is a real person driven by real experiences.

Talking the Talk

Unless someone happens to be H.P. Lovecraft (and you're not), stories are going to have dialogue in them. This is where we get back to the argument about profanity, because if characters deliver dialogue that's bland, boring, or which doesn't fit with their background, education, time period, or world, then readers are going to call bullshit and toss the book sight-unseen over their shoulders.

Just a few examples of this done correctly.
When a character speaks he or she should be recognizable based on word choice, speech pattern and the general ear marks of slang and jargon. I discussed this on the Literary Mercenary's sister blog Improved Initiative right here. A cop who works Hell's Kitchen in New York that was raised in a struggling middle class home should speak differently than a Harvard-educated district attorney, and both of them should sound worlds different from a barbarian warlord from the frozen steppes, or from a space ace from the 52nd century. How do you accomplish that? With words.

Writers need to have an ear for language, and they should be able to research how it's changed over the years. As a quick for instance, no one in Ancient Persia would be called a warlock (here's why). Instead that person would be referred to as a sorcerer or sorceress (again, here's why). Characters who have been in the military will continue using slang they picked up in training, but that language will change based on what conflict someone was involved in and what time period that person served in. In as little as ten years words that are are commonly used like "keen" become the mark of a hopelessly outdated oldster instead of the hip, new way to talk. Lastly, how a person talks gives readers insight into that character. Often times something as simple as a verbal tic, an accent, or just using monosyllables will tell readers all they need to know without an elaborate back story explanation.

Also, don't write dialogue that tries to spell how an accent sounds. This can render entire swaths of page completely unreadable if someone is attempting to write a Scottish, French, or Spanish accent rather than describing the way the words sound in prose. If a reader has to work to translate it, they'll either skip it or stop reading entirely.

Don't Overlook the Little Things

Sometimes disbelief isn't broken by big problems; sometimes it's just that last straw. Accepting a setting where vampires and werewolves are fighting a shadow war in the concrete canyons of the modern day is relatively easy to do. Buying that a character can perform astonishing acrobatics in high heels that are also capable of absorbing a seven-story fall without snapping like twigs? That's a table-flip-we're-done-here offense for some readers.

But it looks cool?
The devil's in the details. If we're following a knight that never cares for his weapons or armor, why aren't they pitted and falling away to rust? If the leader of an entire nation is aware of an uprising of nightmare creatures in the countryside, why would he leave the fate of his people to a teenage wizard instead of calling in the army? If a character is an alien raised by human parents then how do they explain where he came from without a birth certificate, social security card, or any of the other paperwork modern governments worship?

It's the little things that eat away at your credibility. Never assume that something is too small to be noticed; if there's a chink in your story's armor, fix it. Readers need to believe that this world and this story could have happened the way you're telling it; that's the real magic of storytelling.

As always, thanks for stopping in. For those who would like to follow my updates put in your email address in the box in the top right, or follow my Facebook and Tumblr pages. If you'd like to help keep the Literary Mercenary going then go to my Amazon author page to check out my books, leave a donation by clicking the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button, or stop by my Patreon page and donate today!

No comments:

Post a Comment