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Believability in fiction

From Rick:

We often hear the term “suspension of disbelief” applied to fiction, but what does that really mean? By its definition, fiction is not fact, and some writers think that gives them complete freedom to write whatever they want, especially when writing fantasy and science fiction–which is where novice writers, and some not-so-novice writers, can run into trouble.

The closer the writer gets to the real world, the more careful he/she needs to be. And I’m not talking only setting details. Characters–and their names–have to be believable for their setting.

For a moment let’s restrict ourselves to real-world stories. Wherever you story is set, you have to watch out for details. If you live in the area you’re writing about, you likely have a good handle on setting details. But that assumes you’re writing about the present day. As soon as you decide to write in the near or distant past, you have to be careful. I’ll give you two examples.

I once read a story set in the 1880s American West where the author had his character go into a bar that served food and order a hamburger (among other anomalies). This yanked me immediately out of the story because I didn’t think that hamburgers would have been served there. I did a bit of research on when hamburgers made it into the American diet and learned that they were fairly new at the time in the East. I couldn’t determine how far they had spread. While there’s historical evidence of them possibly being served in Texas in the late 1880s (Wikipedia “History of the Hamburger in the United States”), the story, as I recall was set farther west. In any case, hamburgers would not have been common at the time.

Another author in a story set in the same time period used a woman’s name (I can’t recall now what it was) that didn’t feel right for the period. So, I checked my favorite website for historical names.


This site goes back to 1880 and is great for helping a writer to validate whether a name fits the period. The name in question didn’t show up in the top 1000 names in the years of the story. That’s not saying the name wasn’t used, just that it wasn’t at all common. It felt out of place for the period in the same way that MacKenzie as a female slave’s name in the Civil War would feel out of place.

What really prompted this blog post is that I’m currently reading a novel set in England in the 1880s, and one of the characters is named Jason. Perhaps the writer did his research and found the name was in use at the time, but I checked a list of the top 200 UK names in 1900 and Jason was not among them. To be fair, the name ranked in popularity in the US at the time around 400 out of 1000, but it still felt anomalous to me.

You must constantly be aware not only of the facts, but also how a reader will perceive them. If you’re going to present something in your novel that goes against common perceptions, then you have to be sure that you establish your credibility with the reader, and this can be sometimes difficult for new authors that readers may not yet trust.

Now, let’s apply these same principles to non-Earth and futuristic settings. Believe it or not, some authors make the same mistakes when setting their stories on another world. They’ll use contemporary Earth names and terms that may feel out of place in an alien or fantasy setting (unless you establish that the characters are colonists that originally came from Earth). And few things yank me out of a good fantasy piece than a character using the f-word, not because I have a problem with the word, but it’s an Earth term, not one from a society on Alpha Centauri.

This is where that suspension of disbelief comes into play. Even though your setting is fantastical or alien, it still needs to make some sort of sense and have internal consistency.

Coming from a scientific background, I find it annoying when authors use scientifically impossible word combinations or simply corrupt known Earth chemical terms that would never be used by an alien society. For example, using something like “formaldehyde magnesium” or “sodium gold” would just sound stupid and will come off as ignorance on the part of an author to any scientist reading it. Remember that the universe is made of the same chemical elements that we find here on Earth (just not called by the same names). Star Trek pushed a few scientific boundaries, but for the most part they used reasonable extensions of known scientific principles, and the writers stayed internally consistent. If you’re not a scientist, consult one for advice or do your research if you’re going to write sci-fi.

Fantasy worlds may use magic, and that’s fine as long as you establish it properly and make sure its application is consistent in your setting.

I’ll leave you with one more warning. Be careful of continuity in your writing. Just as filmmakers have to watch for anomalous events such as the clock on the wall showing five o’clock one minute and two-thirty a few minutes later in the same scene, so do you have to be sure your story doesn’t contain such gaffes.

In my first novel More Than Magick, my main character has a backpack with him all the time. In one scene, the backpack was suddenly gone (and not because the character had lost or misplaced it). Fortunately, my editor caught that one. In my second novel Vampires, Inc. in a revision I moved one scene from inside to outside, but I still had one of the characters remove his feet from the desk he was sitting at after they were already outside walking. The editor missed that one. I was able to correct it for the print version, but the e-book version had already been released, and the publisher wouldn’t change it because it was a major hassle on his part. So, I had to live with it. It will be corrected when I re-release the revision of that novel myself, hopefully late in 2014.

Therefore, a word to the wise is necessary: Don’t for one minute believe that you’re such a good writer that you’ll never mess up. Above all, do not expect one editor to catch everything. This is precisely why I recommend having at least two sets of competent eyes (in addition to yours) scrutinize your manuscript before you release it.

If you pay close attention to your setting and character details and ensure that everything is consistent and makes sense enough for a reader to suspend disbelief, you’ll minimize or eliminate such errors.


3 thoughts on “Believability in fiction

  • Pingback: Write Well, Write To Sell - Whose writing advice should you believe?

  • Thanks for the comment, Dustin. It’s nice to know the blog is doing some good. It encourages us to keep going.

  • I enjoyed reading through your blog here and decided to leave a comment.
    When I read a sci-fi novel and I find that “Paul” is flying a space ship and talking about eating spaghetti from Mars, I do indeed roll my eyes.

    I’m very grateful that the internet exists and aspiring writers can come on line and read the various suggestions and ideas from other established authors. There are plenty of great suggestions and opinions here. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to post all of this, Rick! Thanks!

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