I’m thrilled to host fantasy writer Suzanna Linton as part of the Brain to Books Cyber Convention activities this week. She’s dropped by here to talk about laying the groundwork for readers to suspend their disbelief (a favorite topic of mine).
by Suzanna Linton
It doesn’t seem right for reality to go along with fantasy. It’s fantasy for crying out loud. It’s totally fine for things to happen that are unrealistic.
This is true. Up to a point.
Suspend Your Disbelief
In order to get readers to swallow a giant who crushes towns for fun, a writer needs to make the reader suspend disbelief. This means they accept something they normally would not. However, if the giant is the cherry on top of a cake of the unbelievable, then the reader finds it difficult to stay with the story.
For example, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy a few of the characters run for miles at great speed, for days, without needing rest. This pushes the boundary of credulity, making it hard for readers to accept it, because an average person would not be able to do that. Especially not a person carrying weaponry and wearing armor. The only reason why a reader would swallow it is that these are otherworldly characters and not the average person.
And it’s freaking Tolkien.
If another fantasy writer did that, involving regular humans who don’t make it a habit of running marathons, then credulity would be stretched. Readers would lose trust in the reliability of the author and disbelief could no longer be suspended.
What Should Be Real?
I sent my novel Willows of Fate to beta readers prior to publication, as one does. One of the readers had a hard time with a scene where my main character, Desdemona, is about to bathe. By this point, Desdemona has left our world for a more fantastical world that’s still stuck in the Middle Ages. Prior to her bath, someone gives her an oval bar of soap to use. My beta reader couldn’t swallow it. She could accept they would have soap in a medieval-esque world but not oval bars.
Now, soap-like mixtures have been in use since Sumerian times but hard, cake-like bars didn’t come into being until the 12th century, which fits the novel. I knew I was right about that, though maybe not about the shape. It sounds more possible that the soap makers cut their product into crude rectangles. For the sake of credulity, I changed the scene slightly.
When I wrote my latest novel, Clara’s Return, I made it a point to research how far a horse can reasonably travel in a day. I used that to plan the pacing of the novel. By being realistic about travel, not only was I able to establish credulity with my readers but I was also able to use it to my advantage.
What writers need to get right, as much as possible, are the little details. Most fantasy is based off a real time period. In terms of social structure and everyday life, what can be carried over into the novel? What things would make the fantasy world more believable?
Some things are pet peeves, like carrying swords into battle while they’re strapped to the back. Swords, particularly great swords, may have been transported that way but warriors didn’t make it a habit of wearing them like that all the time, mostly because they would have been impossible to draw. And women’s armor was no different from men’s armor. (Looking at you, Dragon Age.)
Not every reader will know the difference. Not all readers know about the minutia of a particular historical period. However, that doesn’t lessen the importance of research and getting it right, at least in part.
When a writer gets the little details right, it creates a believable world that makes it easier for the reader to accept the bigger things, like giants and magic. Fantasy grounded in reality is not only still fantasy but also makes for a better read.
Suzanna J. Linton grew up in the swamps of the South Carolina Lowcountry, where she was fed a steady diet of books, tall tales, and catfish. She started writing poetry from an early age before transitioning to fiction. While in high school, she was introduced to the Dragonriders of Pern Series by Anne McCaffrey, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Animorphs. From those Suzanna gained a deep desire to write about tough women heroes.
In 2002, she attended the summer program at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts of Humanities and graduated from Francis Marion University in 2007. She has three books published and her latest novel is Clara’s Return. Suzanna continues to live in South Carolina with her husband, their two dogs, and a cat.