Rules for Writing — Rule 7: Aim for the right level of believability

Continuing our intermittent and randomly numbered series . . .

Believability in fiction is overrated.  P. G. Wodehouse novels aren’t believable.  Most of Shakespeare and Dickens isn’t believable.  Who cares?

The level of believability you want depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re writing a gritty police procedural aimed at readers who consume lots of police procedurals, you’d better make sure your police procedures are believable.  If you’re writing chick lit that involves a scene at a police station, your readers aren’t going to care very much about the details.

Accuracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for believability.  I recall John le Carré describing how he got the description wrong of the British embassy in some African country — probably inThe Constant Gardener.  Who cares, as long as the description he came up with was believable?  On the other hand, in early drafts of my fiction I’ve written descriptions and dialog that my writing group has found unbelievable — even though I took the stuff from real life.

You need to think about believability for characterization, plot, and setting.  In a realistic novel, readers will put up with outlandish plots, but the characters and setting had better ring true.  In a mystery, the plot doesn’t have to be especially believable, but the mystery and its solution had better work.

I find that my own reactions to believability are hard to predict.  In reading 1Q84, I was perfectly happy with a plot that involved all kinds of weirdness, including a parallel universe with an alternate history and two moons (hey, I’ve written a parallel universe story myself — who hasn’t!).  I was annoyed by the idea that Japan could have a short fiction contest that attracted national attention, but I gave that plot point a pass because I don’t know anything about Japan.  I was really peeved, though, by the main character’s reaction to seeing two moons in the sky.  He keeps wondering if this is a hallucination.  He considers asking other people if they see what he’s seeing, but he’s afraid they’ll think he’s crazy.  Dammit, I kept thinking whenever this came up: This character’s not stupid.  Can’t he just read a newspaper, where they give phases of the moon as part of the weather report?  Can’t he go to the library and look in an encyclopedia?   I also wondered about gravitation and tides and such, but I’m not scientifically literate enough to worry too much about that.  Anyway, this one issue periodically marred my enjoyment of the novel.

There are always place is my novels where I find it hard to maintain complete believability. People need to do things that aren’t quite in character; I  need to set up situations that may strain credulity.  The writing craft involves recognizing these problems when they come up; if you can’t avoid them, you need to be able to paper over the crack so that no one notices.

Replica is a complex thriller with a complex technological premise.  You can get away with more hand-waving in a thriller, trusting that the reader doesn’t want to be slowed down by details.  Here are a couple of believability problems that bedeviled me when writing this novel:

  • In the world of Replica, an android is a human clone with a robotic brain inserted.  How does that work, exactly?  You can’t just hollow out the clone’s skull and insert a hard drive.  Or can you?
  • Frightened by an assassination attempt, the president wants to create an android replica of himself to replace him at public appearances.  OK, but how do you create an adult clone of someone?  You can’t just speed up the clone’s development so that you get the equivalent of a 50-year-old man in a matter of months.  Or can you?

I didn’t really solve these problems, but no one complained.  Maybe no one noticed.  Maybe now they will.

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2 thoughts on “Rules for Writing — Rule 7: Aim for the right level of believability

  1. Pingback: Bradbury and Believability | richard bowker

  2. Pingback: Rules for Writing — Rule 2: Revise | richard bowker

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