Relatable Worlds and Suspension of Disbelief

Readers are flighty beasts, whose attention wanders at the smallest excuse. You need to lull them into a secure zone of thought before you can tell a story properly and let it unspool in their mind in the way you intend.

One of the easiest ways to distract a reader is to make something unbelievable. Fiction is (by definition) not real, and isn’t expected to be. What it needs to be is relatable. If you can relate to a fictional universe, you can make shushing noises at the annoying parts of your brain which would otherwise be pointing out that reality doesn’t actually work that way, real people don’t make stirring speeches at points where they’d otherwise be about to die, the laws regarding conservation of energy are immutable, one man sitting on the beach considering the nature of eternity and his life’s failures is quite depressing and so on and so forth.

The author’s job is to make their world relatable. This goes for books in “normal” settings as much as books in fantastic settings. Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, is work in one of the most banal and boring settings imaginable (middle class French society in the late 19th century). The boorishness, shallowness and fakery of the society is lovingly detailed by Proust. However, because of the characters and situations which he meticulously sets up, the setting is relateable.

Le Carre’s intelligence workers are a bunch of dull administrative/academic drones for the most part, but they are relateable. You are inducted into their frame of reference and begin to see the world as they do, or at least see HOW they see the world, see what counts as a victory, what as a defeat, what danger means and what is a lure beyond resistance.

The impetus for this particular post was my picking up a random book at the library (as you do), in this case a book by S. M. Stirling, whom I’d heard good things about. Unfortunately, I stepped right into the middle of a series of his (the Emberverse series), which had already done its major worldbuilding three or more books ago. So what I was left with was a book where technology had ceased to work, and the world (by which of course, I mean the United States) was divided into warring factions who had either embraced the ethos of the SCA, those who embraced Celtic-Style Wicca as well as a small group who appear to accept that Lord of the Rings is a literally true historical document.

Put baldly like that, it seems gamebreakingly ridiculous. I read it, and I can’t relate to the characters, because the reality they inhabit is too distracting. I can’t accept the patently silly elements that make me roll my eyes at regular intervals, and muttering under my breath at the uneven tone (somewhere between high adventure, McCaffrey-esque socio-political sci-fi and deconstructive realism). The spell did not set in where I could accept the unlikely elements, nod at a particularly improbable flourish, smile at an overwrought piece of dialogue and turn hungrily to the next page.

Now, had I experienced all the intermediate steps of worldbuilding, had the tone of the world set appropriately, had all the background that explained apparently arbitrary storytelling choices, had the relationships between the characters fleshed out in a way that gave the plot weight and let me emotionally relate to the stakes (a million anonymous deaths can’t compare to that of a single anthropomorphised puppy), then I might actually feel like picking the book up again.

There are few elements in a book that can’t be accepted by a reader if they are properly explained by background or tone. Turning to my own work, I have the traditional suspensions of disbelief required for science fiction , namely:

  • faster than light travel
  • earthlike planets
  • projected energy weapons; and
  • “consumer” level spacecraft.

Now these are relatively easy. They’re practically conventions now, for anyone who picks up a sci-fi book. Anyone who has a problem with the contravention of the basic Laws of Physics possibly hasn’t read any sci-fi later than the 1930s.

(Now there’s a big caveat to the above section, which I’ll cover in a post soon. A big decision to make.)

My concerns with my worldbuilding are more rooted in the social and political set-up of my world, because they dictate why my characters act in the way in which they do. These are not established conventions (for an example of how even the most basic conventions need to be established, I strongly recommend Laura Bohannon’s Shakespeare in the Bush), and readers have no reason to observe my rationale for my characters’ behaviour unless I show (not tell) them exactly why they should. This is especially important because I strongly want my characters to be alien in the way that only other human beings can be.

So what I’m really trying to do is make plausible certain arrangements of culture and politics that otherwise would seem arbitrary, if not silly. People don’t kill visitors for them warming their hands at the fire when they come in from the cold, do they? Surely no one would make a note of you staying the night as a favour to be called in generations later?

My job is not necessarily to convince the reader that these are reasonable and natural things to do, think and feel from the reader’s perspective. The job is merely to let the reader accept that these are entirely logical things  for these characters and groups to do. That these actions are relatable. A more confident writer might be able to present it as a fair accompli, trusting that their readers are engrossed enough in their story and characters to go along with the flow, accepting that if they’ve bought the ticket, they’re along for the ride. I’m either more thoughtful, or more fearful, but in either case, I want to make sure that my reader don’t feel like they’ve cheated themselves because they let element x go by the by whilst they were reading and regret it afterwards.

TVTropes refers to this as Fridge Logic, originally coined by Hitchcock:

When asked about the scene in Vertigo when Madeleine mysteriously, and impossibly, disappears from the hotel that Scottie saw her in, he responded by calling it an “icebox” scene, that is, a scene that “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.”

Literature has a much narrower tolerance level for Fridge Logic, as there are many opportunities for Cold Chicken during the time it takes to read a novel. On the plus side, however, novels can dictate the terms of the logic that gets used, and as long as it’s done subtly enough, readers won’t reject it.

China Mieville‘s The City and The City is a good case in point. The book is set in a divided city, with two distinct cultures on either side. In a more traditional work this would be achieved with a high wall or a river. Mieville instead does it with architecture and colour. The citizens of each city have been inculcated with the knowledge that THAT side of the street or THAT coloured corner or someone wearing THOSE clothes and walking in THAT way is of the other city, and effectively does not exist. They mentally blank out the other city, and trangressing this conscientious ignorance is dealt with by fearsome secret police  known as “Breach”.

This is blatantly preposterous. It’s a 1st year sociology paper blown up via experimental theatre into a full length novel. And it works. Mieville uses the frame of a traditional police procedural to lay out the rules, taboos, legal, cultural and political ramifications of such a system. Through the investigation of a crime (and later a conspiracy) we get a patiently stitched quilt where we’re never given more than we can chew, and don’t have massive counterintuitive ideas shoved down our throats every few pages. The stitches are tiny, and if the thread changes colour, it does so gradually, so that even if you notice, you don’t mind noticing. Mieville is a talented writer, but in this book, more than his other work, it shows in the gradual construction of… a consensus between author and reader.

I’ve come to the opinion that writing is not a dialogue, however much we might like to think it so. But it’s a monologue where we have to leave spaces for the other person to speak, or at least to ponder, and to make an educated guess as to what those moments might mean for them.

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5 Responses to Relatable Worlds and Suspension of Disbelief

  1. John Harper says:

    Very thoughtful stuff Ben. You mention warming by the fire and calling in generational favours and I already knew that such things were ok. When its subtly yet clearly shown that such attitudes have grown from the environment, like you have done, then it makes perfect sense. Or as you say, is relatable.

    The other balancing act is trusting the reader to understand and not bludgeoning them over the head with a neon sign.

    • redravens says:

      Like I say in the piece, it’s putting in those near-invisible stitches. Cumulatively, you draw your reader in, until they don’t even notice the individual panels of the comfy quilt you’ve wrapped them in, they just think of it as the thing that’s making them comfortable.

  2. Pingback: The Courtier’s Reply and The Impossibility of Objectivity | Dispatches from the Gilded Cage

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