Have you ever wondered why characters in the Superman comics never seem to notice that Clark Kent is obviously Superman? Chances are you don’t give it much thought, and you certainly don’t let it spoil your enjoyment of Superman. After all, you can accept the idea of an alien being who looks completely human, while possessing the ability to fly, super strength, super speed, super hearing and x-ray vision. So why would accepting that Clark only needs to put on a pair of glasses to fool everyone be any less easy to justify?
Sure, you’re not an idiot; you know that in real life anyone who saw Kal-El and Clark would put two and two together right away. But the comic book world isn’t the real world, so you ignore this implausibility and just go with it. In speculative fiction this principle is known as suspension of disbelief, a term that was first coined by nineteenth century poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This principle refers to readers’ willingness to withhold their incredulity as to the inherent implausibility in the narrative of a work of fiction.
As you can see from the Superman example used in the opening paragraph, suspension of disbelief can be a tricky proposition. All readers of Superman comics are accepting of his otherworldly origins and his super powers, but at the same time many of these same people find it much more difficult to accept that no one is able to recognise that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. So what is the reason for this discrepancy?
The best explanation I can surmise, is that the creators of superhero comics have successfully established a fictional reality where characters, through various means, are able to possess abilities that nobody could possibly have in the real world. That being the case, as all Superman’s powers are consistent with the internal logic created within superhero comics, people are able to readily suspend their disbelief, as it pertains to his abilities.
Conversely the writers of the comics have failed to provide readers with a plausible justification for accepting that nobody is able to see through Clark Kent’s disguise. If human logic and reasoning is radically different in the comic book world, then the creators of the comics have neglected to inform their readers of this. So people can rightly be forgiven for nitpicking this issue, after all, they may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Some people argue that the burden of achieving suspension of disbelief rests with the reader; that it is up to them to create their own justification for believing the impossible in the narrative of a work of fiction. Others believe it is the responsibility of the writer to give the reader cause to willingly suspend their disbelief; that they must convincingly write a fictional reality that remains consistent to its own internal logic, allowing readers to simply accept any apparently implausible elements within the narrative.
I am very much in the second camp with regard to this debate. It should never be left to the reader to try make sense of a writer’s seemingly nonsensical plot elements, by inventing their own reasons for suspension of disbelief. If a writer does his or her job correctly this would never be necessary, as the reader would unconsciously believe the unbelievable without a second thought. I believe the best way to guarantee this, is to not insult the intelligence of the reader, and assume they’ll just go along with whatever is written. Instead, writers should ensure that the world building established in their narrative is persuasive and remains consistent with its own internal logic.
I can acknowledge that this may be easier said than done, as not all readers think alike, so what one person might have no difficulty in suspending their disbelief for, someone else may find impossible to do. This is especially true with regard to human behaviour. The way in which characters behave and react to situations in works of fiction is very often at the heart of most failures to achieve suspension of disbelief. Just because a story contains fantastical elements like magic, mythical creatures or time travel, it doesn’t mean that human reasoning and logic fly out of the window. So fictional characters need to be believable too, perhaps even more so than the actual story they are in.
I’m sure that some of you reading this post will be of the opinion that suspension of disbelief is not important to achieve, as a lack thereof will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of a good story. In response to this line of reasoning, I will close this post by giving an example of an instance in which my inability to suspend my disbelief prevented me from going any further. It’s from a film as opposed to a novel, but the same principle applies.
Many years ago I tried to watch the film Alien3 but I was unwilling to watch past the opening credit sequence. Now, before anyone jumps the gun and assumes that I am a butt-hurt fan of Hicks and Newt from Aliens, the reason I did not watch beyond the opening credits, is because I simply could not suspend my disbelief at something that I found to be so incredibly stupid, that I couldn’t overlook it. The writer(s) expected me to believe that in the distant future when humanity has mastered interstellar space travel, people would be silly enough to build spacecraft without some kind of on board fire suppression system. Instead, in the event of a tiny fire that can be put out in five seconds, the ship’s on board computer would be programmed to jettison the crew out into space.
Well I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. I can suspend my disbelief for seven feet tall, drooling, phallic headed, bio-mechanical alien life forms with concentrated acid for blood that erupt from people’s chest cavities. Just don’t ask me to accept spaceships designed to dispose of their crews into the cold vacuum of space if a minuscule fire breaks out, rather than having fire extinguishers installed.
So beware, my fellow writers; people may be idiots, but don’t push your luck.