Tag Archives: world making

Suspension of Disbelief

According to my thirty seconds of research (thanks Wikipedia!) the phrase “a willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Coleridge.

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith

Apparently fiction that involved the supernatural had fallen out of favor (thanks secular humanism!) to a degree and he was intent on bringing it back. As such his audience needed to set aside their rationalism and approach the story as though it’s fantastic elements were plausible, but he realized that they could only do that (provided I’m parsing this sentence right) if he granted his characters a certain “semblance of truth”.

Since then, and it’s been a long strange two hundred year trip, that three word phrase “suspension of disbelief” has been a burden placed on authors who seem unable or unwilling to paint their characters as realistically human in spite of fangs, fire breathing, or incanting. If we don’t enjoy a B-movie or a cult favorite it’s not because the writing wasn’t good or the characters were so thin you could see through them. It’s because we didn’t “suspend our disbelief”.

This is akin to movies were I am told I must “turn my brain off” to enjoy them. Believe me, I know that sometimes that helps. There are certainly plenty of books/movies that “over-thinking” will destroy utterly. And you know what? Part of me doesn’t mind that, but another part of me objects when entertainment asks me to be too dumb.

So this raises some questions to both the readers and writers out there. How much of a burden should be on the writer vs. the reader? Is it true that the farther/zanier you go with the plot, the more human you must make the characters (or vice versa)? How far can you (or the author) go before that’s just not possible or before the fiction becomes so implausible that you just can’t finish? How much will you as a readers forgive in terms of the absence of a semblance of truth before the shadows fade away? How dumb is too dumb?

And a bonus question. What have you read and enjoyed that everyone around you thinks is complete drivel? I won’t call that a guilty pleasure since I don’t think you should feel guilty, but that’s what it’s commonly known as.