I’m sure, if you read any kind of fiction, especially Science Fiction or Fantasy, you’ve likely heard the phrase “suspension of disbelief” in relation to how well you’re able to get into and follow along with the books and stories you read.
Suspension of disbelief is also important for writing fiction, particularly Science Fiction and Fantasy. I’m going to go on about Fantasy in particular, because that is the genre I know best, both from a reader’s perspective as well as a writer’s.
As a reader, I have a much easier time suspending disbelief in magic, shapeshifting, and pretty much whatever I’ve come across in most Fantasy books. There are few Fantasy books/stories I’ve started reading which I’ve given up on due to the fact I simply could not invest any faith in the worldbuilding or magical system of the world. If I have given up on fantasy books—any kind, whether they be Urban Fantasy or High Fantasy, or Epic Fantasy—it’s because something else about the book caused me to do so. I can’t recall a single instance where I came across a magical system or bit of worldbuilding in another’s book which caused me to say, “I just can’t believe that, so I can’t finish this book because of it.”
It’s much easier for me to suspend my disbelief when I’m reading another’s story.
When I’m writing stories of my own? Not so easy.
In one project I’d like to get back to but haven’t had a chance to really work on in a few months, which I haven’t even listed here on the site, I have plans for one of the Main Characters to create little spies out of wooden dolls. These dolls aren’t very big, and they’re jointed, and he dresses them, names them, and sends them on spying missions to gain information he needs about the place he lives and the people who are around him. When I originally wrote the scenes depicting these little magical mannikins, I had a great deal of difficulty believing they moved on their own because they were supposed to be inanimate objects—I could not convince myself the magic my character had used to make these dolls functional was “real” in the context of the world, so every so often when writing about the dolls, I froze and tried to figure out how they were moving without muscles. How they were communicating by thought-image without brains.
I can sometimes be a bit too literal.
I’m the same way with shapeshifters. Necia Phoenix, one of my writer-friends, has a world with shapeshifting dragons (check out her site; she’s got a list of snippets with these dragons, and they’re worth the effort). While, when reading, I can believe that these dragons do shapeshift into human form, I have difficulty keeping the belief when I consider whether or not I may want to add shapeshifters of any kind to my own writing. In fact, my first published story, Soul of Insurgence, makes a statement about shapeshifting on my world of Chraest—it’s not possible. Only substitution is possible. A Mage may capture an animal and place it somewhere to fool mundane people into thinking either he’s changed his own shape or that he’s changed someone else’s shape. In truth, however, on Chraest, changing one’s form from human to animal is impossible. The magic doesn’t work that way.
Now, on Chraest, if one has Healing Gifts, one may alter the human shape of their own body. Make themselves thinner or fatter, keep a youthful-looking appearance if they so wish, darken or lighten their skin, grow more body hair (up to and including like fur) or less of it (until they’re completely hairless from scalp to toes). That’s the way the magic works. But shifting to an animal’s shape? Impossible. I can believe in changing one’s own body to suit desires or self-image. I can’t believe in crushing a human’s body mass into an animal the size of a house cat (or something the mass of a traditional dragon into the size of a human).
I’m probably not the only writer with this hangup. It hasn’t stopped me from trying to do things which I know magic can do on my worlds. I’m not sure I’ll ever use shapeshifters, but I do intend to use the mannikins in the story I mentioned above. This character’s efforts at gaining information are too important to the plot, and he can’t go into the areas his magical dolls can—at least not without causing a great deal of suspicion or being caught snooping.
I’ll just feel my writing muscles stretching further. Which is a very, very good thing.