Live Long and Prosper with Verisimilitude and Suspension of Disbelief
We’re all Captain James T. Kirk when we sit down to write. We boldly go where no man or woman has gone before—and we take readers with us.
The idea is not to drag them kicking and screaming.
How do you do that? By giving them touchstones, familiar things to serve as sign posts along the way. Comforting images to entice them to follow you to…
…a galaxy far, far away
…a school for wizards
…a bucolic village called the Shire
…a house in the suburbs with a dead body in the driveway.
Did I give you whiplash with the last one? Good. I meant to, to make this point—the destination doesn’t matter. The techniques Lucas, Rowling, and Tolkien used to transport you to different worlds are verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief. I’ll use them to deliver you to Sherry’s driveway.
Verisimilitude is the appearance of being true or real.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an 18th century British literary critic and poet, coined the phrase suspension of disbelief, which is, in his words, “…directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth”—verisimilitude—“sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith…”
I wasn’t an English literature major for nothing, so allow me to translate that for you. Willing suspension of disbelief is trust. Moviegoers and readers trusted Lucas, Rowling, and Tolkien to keep them safe when they whisked them away to Tatooine, Hogwarts, and the Shire.
And just as it is in real life, trust isn’t given—it must be earned.
Lucas enticed you with Luke Skywalker, the image of a blond, blue-eyed surfer dude who looked like he’d wandered too far from the ocean. Rowling tugged your heartstrings with Harry Potter, a lonely, orphaned boy living in a cupboard under the stairs. Tolkien offered you Hobbits.
All three began with relatable, likeable characters. Luke is Every Teenager Ever Born. Your heart aches for Harry. Hobbits share our love of human comforts: a good meal, a glass of beer, a pipe by the fire.
A handsome face, familiar feelings, comforting things. Touchstones.
There’s zero chance (I hope!) that you’ll ever find a dead body in your driveway, but I’ll use touchstones to walk you out to get the paper with Sherry. Dew on the grass, a hole in the toe of one slipper, wrinkled PJs she quickly grabbed from last night’s dryer run. We’ve all left clothes in the dryer. (C’mon, ’fess up.)
I used a couple in the last post. The petrified PB&J sandwich, Sherry can’t find her phone, her broken heart. We can all relate to that one.
If readers believe in your character, they’ll follow him or her—and you—anywhere.
Luke to the Death Star in the Millennium Falcon. Harry pushing his luggage through the brick wall on Platform 9 ¾ to board the train to Hogwarts. Bilbo into the Mines of Moria. Sherry into the police station to post bail for her ex, the Cheater. She cleaned out their 401K to do it. And wouldn’t you know? She has a coffee stain on her blouse.
You earn readers’ trust by giving them familiar, human things—verisimilitude—and by planting them as firmly as you can in the real-as-possible aspects of your character’s life. Establish that trust and they’ll beg you to suspend their disbelief.
Fail to do so, and you’ll never get away with pulling the rug out from under their feet. That’s what Lucas did, when Obi Wan lowered the hood of his cloak. What Rowling did, when the snake talked to Harry on the field trip to the zoo. What Tolkien did, when Bilbo opened the door to Gandalf.
And from that moment on, their lives were never the same.
This is how I pulled the rug out from under Willie Evans, the heroine of Nightwing, the vampire novel I mentioned in my second post:
Nothing. That’s what Willie saw. Absolutely nothing in the mirror she aimed over her shoulder at Raven’s retreating back as he walked up the driveway.
“Wait a minute,” she muttered, changing the angle of the mirror.
She still saw nothing but the Corvette. Willie didn’t get it, not even when she saw the driver’s door open by itself. She thought there was something wrong with the mirror, so she turned around.
In time to see Raven glance up and wave at her as he slid behind the wheel and started the engine. The powerful growl sent a shiver up her spine. What was it she’d thought earlier? That she didn’t know much about mirrors. Only that they were expensive to resilver, and you couldn’t see vampires in them because they don’t cast reflections.
“Oh, God,” Willie moaned, the mirror slipping out of her suddenly boneless fingers.
Readers already know Jonathan Raven is a vampire. In earlier scenes I showed his inhuman strength and the magics he can perform. This is the scene where Willie realizes what he is—and how much danger she’s in.
And from that moment on, her life will never be the same.
I kept the business about vampires don’t cast reflections, but I changed some other things about vampire lore: garlic doesn’t faze Raven, and he rips off the crucifix Willie starts wearing. After Nightwing was published, I received letters from readers asking for the title of the book where I found all that cool stuff about vampires because they wanted to read it. I was almost embarrassed to tell them I made it all up.
And that is the power of verisimilitude.
After saving Willie and Raven from Nekhat, the ancient Egyptian vampire that turned Raven, Sherry and the corpse in her driveway will be a piece of cake. With sprinkles and a scoop of chocolate ice cream.
Now you know how to create sympathetic and relatable characters, the best way to weave in backstory, and how to use verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief to make readers believe every word you write.
Go forth, dear readers, and as Jean-Luc Picard, a worthy successor to James T. would say, “Make it so.”
Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”