…or how to create verisimilitude in your fantasy or any other fiction writing.
The first definition on www.dictionary.com for verisimilitude is: the appearance or semblance of truth; likelihood; probability. (You have noticed I’m slipping in a vocabulary word with each post. Well, this post is by a writer for writers and readers alike, after all.)
This mouthful of a “v-word” is the key to writing believable fiction of any kind. Why does fiction need to be believable? Isn’t a story about magic and dragons or spaceships and aliens all pretty unbelievable?
Could things in fantastic fiction actually happen or have they happened? Is that really the point of a story, to illustrate exactly what happens in reality?
If you want facts and reality, read or watch the news (some would argue all that is fiction as well, but that is not the subject of this blog), read biographies or history books (more fiction?).
Stories are meant to transport the reader or audience (in the case of oral storytelling) to another time and place that really only happens in the mind. A good story entertains our sense of action and adventure, it illuminates our sense of understanding of people and the world, and it moves us to feel empathy and sympathy for people in situations that are extraordinary. We walk away from a great story changed as much or more than the characters. But how is all this accomplished?
A story has many parts and I will focus in this post on the facet of believability or often referred to as the “suspension of disbelief“. This concept is used throughout the world of screenwriting and movies and although less visibly discussed in fiction circles, it is equally apropos.
Suspending disbelief means the writer must create a world or a setting that rings true, even if it is a distant planet or a magic land of eldritch beings. The key here is that “ringing true” is not “actually true”. The writer seeks for the appearance of truth, or verisimilitude. So, how does a writer fake the truth?
We have all heard the advice “write what you know”. This is the first step. Your unique point of view on the world and how it works and how people interact is what you know. You know how gravity works, how water feels, what a banana tastes like and how it feels to be upset, happy, bored, or afraid. This is what you know. Use this to fuel your setting and characters. Characters that behave or have traits like people you know or have met will “ring true.” If you invent a fantastic fruit for your world that is called an “ananab” (banana spelled backwards), and it tastes like a banana, describe it as such. It will appear to be true and the audience and reader will accept that this fruit is similar to a real world banana. They will not question your flora or fauna and will continue reading for the story, to see what happens next. This step means that as a writer, you can’t sit around your house all day reading and writing. What you know doesn’t necessarily mean how another writer you’ve read describes bananas. When you write, it should be how you would describe a banana. A writer must live and experience life sufficient to have enough real world experience and information to draw upon to give the appearance of truth. So, go out there and try a pomegranate, go fish in the ocean, eavesdrop in a cafe, cook a souffle, play with a child, or paint a picture. Do stuff and then write what you know.
The next step to fake the truth is research. Let’s face it, the sum total of what we know, regardless of our age, experience, or travels isn’t much. If you’ve never ridden a horse, how do you describe it? Watch movies about horses, read books, talk to equestrians? If it is not feasible to do it yourself, then yes, do all the preceding and learn about it. Research fills in the gaps of your knowledge so that you can write with authority about horses, or castles, or hyper drives, or laser torches. A little research goes a long way. Most readers won’t be interested in the architecture and construction materials of a castle, nor do they necessarily want the floor plan described to them. They want just enough information to picture the castle and the relevant details to make it seem real in their mind. Remember, if the reader can picture something in their mind, that goes a long ways towards accepting its story truth.
And ultimately, a story truth is an agreement between the writer and the reader. The writer promises a story that however fantastic seems real, that has verisimilitude. The reader promises to suspend disbelief of those fantastic elements in order to enjoy the story.
Of the two, the writer has the bigger responsibility to deliver on the promise. If the writer cannot or will not, the reader is no longer obligated and is free to read something else, or worse, turn on the television.
So writing what you know and researching what you don’t are two ways I’ve found to create stories that seem true, despite the presence of magic or monsters. If the story world seems real and the setting seems plausible and the characters act like real people act, then you will have achieved verisimilitude in your writing and your story.
For me, in my fantasy novel, I did not know how to buy a horse and tell its age. So I looked it up online and found that you can tell the age of a young horse by how developed and/or worn down its eye teeth are. I also didn’t know how far a horse or a coach pulled by horses could ride in a day. Rather than make it up and have horse experts sneer at my poor fact checking, I looked it up so that when my characters ride horses, they ride a realistic distance each day. Sure, they may face other less real things in their journey, but at least the setting and transportation are both plausible and grounded in real world experience and physics.
This is how I fake the truth. Make everything as real as possible and your monsters and magic or starships and time travel will seem real enough for the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.
And isn’t that the point of telling a story, so that it is heard?