Sunday, July 3, 2011

Reality in Fiction

By Shaun McCoy

I'm a writer, and I want you to believe in a pixie. She's about 3.7" tall—though admittedly that's in heels—and she's buzzing through the forest, her little wings beating as fast as a humming bird's, trying like hell to make it home in time for the Laker's game. She's a big fan of Kobe Bryant's.

Do you believe in her? I do.

As readers, it's easy for us to believe in this pixie. In fact, I once believed in Bruenor Battle Hammer, an angry dwarf who's resistant to magic spells. I did, that is, until one day he pretended to be sick in order to convince his best friend to help him on a quest.


I wasn't buying. I almost put down the book. My battle-tested-celtic-faeriefolk-derived-mountain-dwelling-tough-man, playing practical jokes? That was too much. Never mind that his best friend was an elf.

So what is it about stories that can cause readers to call foul? It certainly isn't plausibility. In order to engross a reader fiction does need to be realistic and internally consistent, but how can this be achieved in a story where so much is obviously fiction?

Well, don't forget, the majority of your audience actually believed in Santa Clause. I mean, this shouldn't be too hard. The reader left some of their disbelief at the door. You only really have to fool their inner child. Their adult is already on vacation.

Let's take a look at the earlier lessons a human child learns about reality. If we can satisfy these basic expectations our reader should be able to ride along with us without pulling his suspension of disbelief muscle.

Lesson 1: Object Permanence
According to Piaget (he's a famous psychologist, btw), one of the first things we learn about the universe is Object Permanence. That is, that objects exist even when you're not looking at them. While this understanding may forever ruin your games of peek-a-boo, it's very helpful in finding your car keys. Let's take a look at our Pixie. She's late for a game that is happening where she is not. This makes her tale more believable. Satisfying your reader's unconscious need for object permanence can make your narrative very appealing indeed. It's the new peek-a-boo. Remember that love potion in chapter 11? Peek-a-boo, the Prince is in love!

Lesson 2: The Difference Between ‘I’ and ‘You’
Also according to Piaget (he's still a famous psychologist, btw), the next big step we take towards understanding reality is that the universe is in itself separate from you. That there are other people in that universe who want different things. So many writers talk about character driven stories. Well why are these so compelling? Many of us lean heavier on the knowledge of the Ego than on Object Permanence. Stories that satisfy this particular subconscious need can be more compelling for readers whose reality "lens" is more focused on people. Let's look at our Pixie. She's a Laker's fan. Being a sports fan automatically enacts this I/You principle. By acknowledging that she likes the Lakers, we are also acknowledging that there are other people out there who also like the Celtics (see Philosophical Differences).

She's also not Kobe Bryant. He is the you, and she is the I.

Lesson 3: Philosophical Differences (bonus points)
In Piaget's last developmental stage, we realize that people whom we truly think are evil (democrats or republicans or communists or socialists or capitalists or misandrous pigs) truly believe that they are good people. They actually think that we're evil! If we can see their perspective, we can see that they are often as right about us as we are about them. These philosophies are varied, and not always didactic. I may believe that kinesthetic intelligence is integral to team building. You might not, but we're not likely to have a knock-down drag-out fight about it. This section is optional for a few reasons. Not everyone makes it to this stage, Piaget tells us, so our audience is going to be limited. Also, we left our disbelief at the door, remember. You don't have to fool the adult's sensibilities; they already know its fiction. We just have to have enough to fool the reader's inner child.


monjon said...

Great stuff, Shaun. I always thought Piaget was brilliant until I became a parent; now, I'm not so sure. Your article had me until I got to the glaring error: pigs are always misogynous, not misandrous.

Alex said...


Once again your blog is as interesting as a piece of writing, as it is informative.

I enjoyed this blog very much, especially the references to Piaget. He is one of my favorite sources of information on child development.


Ginny said...

I felt conflicted by the use of "misandrous." Maybe Shaun meant it the way he wrote it. Very though provoking this way.

monjon said...

Definitely, I agree with you Ginny and hope Shaun realizes when I spoke of an "error", it was strictly tongue in cheek.