Suspension of Disbelief

All fiction rests on, as the British poet Coleridge put it more than two centuries ago, “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” But what continually surprises me is what aspects of “disbelief” various readers are willing to suspend (and what they are not), as well as what suspensions various authors expect of their readers.

As authors, we all have beliefs and preferences. As my readers know, I try hard to provide workable economic and political systems as a framework for my novels, and this carries over into my reading. While I’m more willing to accept an unworkable economic or political system in a fantasy, particularly when the plot doesn’t depend primarily on either, if I’m reading science fiction, especially hard science fiction, totally unworkable politics and economics are usually a total turn-off for me. Likewise, a cast of characters with no visible means of support tends to make suspension of disbelief difficult for me. But that’s me.

Everyone has different parameters for what aspects of “disbelief” can be suspended, and sometimes I find what readers can and cannot accept as “literarily believable” rather, shall I say, interesting. There are readers who can easily accept order and chaos magic but cannot believe the way certain female characters in my books behave [even though that behavior is modeled on that of my wife and my numerous daughters].

There is, of course, a difference between willingness to suspend disbelief and disliking the way characters are portrayed, but there’s a definite crossover. Readers who aren’t fond of strong women are going to have more trouble suspending disbelief when they encounter a female character who’s not particularly tolerant of male chauvinism, misogyny, and patriarchal power. Readers who are fond of action will be less likely to suspend disbelief when a character has to deal with a great deal of bureaucracy, subtlety, and intrigue.

From what I’ve observed, readers are far more likely to suspend disbelief about politics, economics, and technology than about interpersonal relationships and social structures, although this has changed significantly over the past thirty years. Even so, radically changed socio-economic structures are still comparatively infrequent, possibly because they’re hard for many readers to even imagine, let alone accept as “realistic” enough to suspend disbelief.

And, in the end, because one of the reasons why people read fiction is to escape reality, fiction that is apparently “farther” from reality draws more readers than fiction closer to reality, but that’s often an illusion, because while the magic or technology vary greatly from reality, societal basics seldom do, which is why an older book such as The Left Hand of Darkness still stands out.

11 thoughts on “Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. Damon says:

    Not to entirely change the subject, but I do miss the updates for books you’ve read and enjoyed. I usually pick up those books, based on you’re recommendations. Thanks

  2. Grey says:

    This is spot on. People often “tell on themselves” with where they draw the line on this sort of thing as well. A number of people in the US currently are having an absolute aneurysm over a black mermaid, for example.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      I haven’t seen it. On the benefit of the doubt, maybe they changed other things so it makes more sense, or maybe it’s just so well done that one doesn’t care, unless one is one of those who feels more included by the change. Still on reports only, it seems inconsistent with a reasonably old original story , whether a contrivance well-meaning, or patronizing (“see how we meet quota”), or just lazy. I hope it does do well, because a reinterpretation of a character (even if it SHOULDN’T matter) can be a burden as well as an opportunity for the actor.

      Is it really a “tell” to wonder if the benefits of such a change (admittedly there are reports of young non-white girls feeling included and respected by the alteration) are worth a retelling that perhaps suffers in consistency as a result? Or is it maybe a “tell” if one implies that all criticisms are of malicious origin (granted SOME are) when other explanations also are possible? If one can see “tells” everywhere, one had better be questioning oneself too.

      OTOH, there have been lots of white actors playing non-white characters in older movies (with varying degrees of professionalism and respect!), so I guess what comes around, goes around, although it’s also said that two wrongs don’t make a right.

  3. Daze says:

    From memory – I’ve read too many to check, most space opera tends to assume autocracy/empire so they can ignore the politico-economic stuff and get on with the action. Heinlein and Niven would also tend to think it was a good thing.

    Some of the best (yours included, LEM!) actually look at the differences between systems and their respective flaws, as none are perfect. One thinks here of The Dispossessed and Cherryh’s Alliance-Union books.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Gotta say, while nobody is perfect and I appreciate a story with nuance (having seen often enough that nuance and politics and differing systems takes a lot of resources to deal with sanely in the real world) and realism, I also enjoy as contrast the escapism of a story where good exterminates evil and even if one concedes that there may be no absolute definitions of those, it’s clear enough which is which that there’s nothing gained by questioning it, and one doesn’t need to deal with an alternative perspective in the next installment. (thinking Lensman series here, arguably the ultimate space opera)

      Fun either way IMO, but very differently so. When I’m feeling lazy (more often as time goes by), I don’t want to be challenged, I want clearcut evil clearly defeated, even if successors will doubtless have their own adversaries to deal with in their time. Too dang many years of the same bad guys (USSR/Russia, PRC, North Korea, Middle-Eastern extremists, etc) just gets old; let’s wipe them all out and grow some new bad guys for variety’s sake…except of course that we might not HAVE successors if we did that in a direct fashion. 🙁

  4. Mayhem says:

    Personally I have a variable scale of suspension of disbelief, mostly down to how the worldbuilding is presented. The more it is focussed on shiny magic, the more I have to turn down my analytical side. I’ll also give older works more of a pass – modern works are expected to be more sophisticated.

    For example as soon as I look closely at a lot of epic fantasy, the whole setting falls apart – Jordan’s Wheel of Time is a good example in that most nations should have starved, and several had nowhere near enough water sources. The whole scale of the setting is broken, but it runs on rule of cool. And when I’m caught up in the story I don’t mind, but it irritates me later when I think about it.

    It’s one reason I like our host’s work so much – in almost every setting the primary trade routes are maritime or along rivers, and the underlying economics of the setting are important, whether it be timber, manufacturing, agriculture or military.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      I think it also depends on the premise ahead of time.

      Wheel of Time does not work because of constant inconsistencies that wouldn’t occur naturally.

      But baked into it, 3000 years ago people with untold level of powers went insane and reshaped the globe. We saw what happened with a calm, rational mind trying to be careful when Creslin made Recluce more habitable. Now imagine 100,000 Creslins and Jesleks who were completely insane and just wanted to break things. You might end up with weird water tables, pockets of things, offset lands that shouldn’t be. Combine that with magic users who can’t casually and at will tweak weather or bring up water. It can function because channeling is ridiculous.

      They won’t last, but 3000 years is a relatively short time geologically speaking. Things will fall and change eventually.

      Mind you, I 100% agree that the more realistic more balanced magic is a better story over all, but the “Um actually” brat in me wanted to comment further. 🙂

      1. Mayhem says:

        Yes, Creslin’s example is a very good one – making Recluce a green and pleasant land turns the fertile plains central Candar into a desert because he messed too much with the jet streams. It’s a very clever if often overlooked piece of worldbuilding and showcasing the consequences of great deeds.

        But the magic doesn’t have to be hard – Valdemar for example has fairly soft magic, but still takes the time to mention trade routes between and within the lands and highlight the different goods produced around the world, and especially the chaos when a magic based society meets disruptive events.

        Whereas some authors just want a generic setting to have cool shit happen. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I just find I’ve been spoiled over the years to hope for more.

    2. Grey says:

      I appreciate Brandon Sanderson‘s “Stormlight Archive“ series for one small detail in particular. Buried in the hundreds of pages of prose are occasional references to specialized magic users who turn dirt into food,* preempting complaints about how the massive armies are kept fed.

      (Perhaps taking to heart that ancient episode of The Simpsons featuring the actors for Xena, Warrior Princess, and their explanation at a fantasy con for anything the nitpickers found wrong in the episodes during their panel: “a wizard did it.”)

      1. Ryan Jackson says:

        I don’t think he does as well as Mr. Modesitt Does, but Brandon tries very hard to keep his magic hard. I think Elantris is the only kind of wonky one, but Stormlight, Mistborn and even White Sands tend to be very concrete in how they work.

        1. R. Hamilton says:

          The basic problem with unstructured magic (or technology indistinguishable from it, unless the other side is just about as good and a whole lot more numerous) is that there’s no clear reason why it doesn’t reduce to one side using their biggest weapon immediately and winning, the end…boring. Just about every story needs SOME limits, and perhaps those authors with more applied (but politico-social as well as technical, not exclusively one or the other) rather than abstract experience are likely to come up with limitations and challenges more relatable to real-world ones.

          Yet modern criticism of shortfalls in older stories…how much of that is being after the concept (like paintings and sculptures before and after a full understanding of proportion and perspective) or dependent on modern social assumptions, vs how much of the older stories reflects the limitations of their times, both perceptual and social? Or different authors focus on different aspects of realism; one that redefined fantasy started with a personal aesthetic of a language, and went on to imagine the cultures that produced it, and therefore to a degree other languages too. Perhaps Klingon and other fictional languages developed to the point of being just about usable have their precedent in Tolkien’s fictional languages.

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