For the past few weeks I’ve been watching Psych (only a little behind the times) because I wanted something light that I wasn’t going to get super invested in (I’m in season 5 now). What I find interesting about the show is the levels of suspension of disbelieve it requires to watch it.
This is not a critique and analysis of Psych and what it portrayed accurately, but rather the attitude about accuracy and the suspension of disbelief in fiction, and here I’ll mostly be thinking of contemporary romance fiction as the genre with which I’m most familiar. We’ve all seen arguments about how accurate and factual a book should be, how much research an author should do, and how stories need to be grounded in reality (if they are contemporary fiction). I’ve even seen it argued that people will use these as tool in their own life, so we’re required to present the facts correctly.
To which a big part of me says…REALLY?
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely understand inaccuracies throwing a reader out of a story, and that is an important consideration. (Ask me about 99% of stories involving horses and people writing them that do not know what they’re talking about.) However, I question how real reality needs to be in fiction. Because the stories are made up (and the points don’t matter), does it matter if something is an accurate portrayal?
To some degree, I think stories have to be grounded in reality because of common knowledge (ie, if you ignore that World War Two happened, the reader isn’t likely to suspend disbelief that far). But for less common knowledge, or facts that toe the line of accuracy for sake of a good story–does it matter that the author diverged from reality?
Can you have a gay romance in a small town where the two mains are both out and proud and receive no backlash? Can you have a story take place in the “now” but ignore that the government is a horror movie and the world’s on fire if you wrote the book in 2020?
Yes, because it’s fiction. (And you can feel free to disagree, but you’re wrong ;P)
Going a step further (and circling back around), can you create a premise that is maybe not grounded in reality but still has its feet on the ground (like, say, a fake psychic solving a ton of cases for a local police station)? Can you fudge the laws of inheritance to create dramatic tension? Can you ignore the reality that half your cast shouldn’t have green eyes? Can you ignore that your uterus-having characters never have to deal with a period? Can you fudge that if someone actually missed work as much as the MC did because of story drama, they’d likely be fired?
Within reason, I say yes, as long as it’s not a glaring issue that will throw the average reader completely from the story and make them unable to suspend their disbelief. IE, the story could happen in a very similar parallel universe.
I’m not judging stories that purposefully keep their stories grounded in reality–props to them–but that shouldn’t make them inherently better in some way. Because these are fictional stories.
That said, the less you can diverge from reality in a book that is meant to take place in the real world’s present, the more real your story may feel. But I don’t think we should tell writers they can’t (shouldn’t) write that story about the professional Mennonite football player (who sends all his big bucks back to his community) and the love he finds along the way, as long as the author can sell the story to the reader.
(Please do not think this post means that I’m excusing stories for being all straight, cis, and white [which doesn’t properly express reality’s diversity]. There’s a difference between changing something for dramatic story telling and ignoring that gravity exists. But I’d also argue most of those stories aren’t actively deciding to ignore a fact and more are just showing their own bias/ignorance. Many of us need to do better. I’m also not trying to excuse stories that actively do harm to people, although that is a fuzzy line and a different debate.)