I’ve noticed there are times when I’m reading a short story or novel and come upon a section that, in my mind, seems too unrealistic. It’s like hitting a speed bump in your car. It’s jolting and can take you out of the story. But other times I can read a piece of fiction, something made-up and obviously fake, but my mind accepts it as if it were real.
The reason I bring this up is that I just finished reading a short story in a collection of translated Chinese sci-fi where the author uses Alan Turing, the great intellect and famous code-breaker, as a character.
At the end of the story, the author notes that she pulled a lot of her information from various biographies of Turing and admits to fictionalizing a fair amount of information about his life.
In fact, she said that she challenged some of her friends to read the story and determine what was real and what was made up. None of them were completely sure.
I know I wasn’t, but then, I didn’t realize a fair portion of this man’s life, in regards to this story, was fake. But it also got me to thinking – would I have enjoyed the story any less if I’d known this ahead of time?
I don’t think so. I mean, it’s part of the job of a fiction writer to make things up and make them believable. In a way, we are purposefully trying to deceive our readers, but not in a malicious manner. We try to get them to suspend their disbelief, and if we’re successful, the reader gets to enjoy the story.
Back to my question for a moment. I don’t know much about Turing, other than he broke the Nazi Enigma code in World War II. I also know he was a brilliant mathematician and that he was severely punished for being gay. A tragic story. However, if I’d known more about his life, read a biography or two, would this short story have still carried the same weight? Would I have been able to enjoy it, suspend my disbelief?I know that when I watch a movie where there’s computer hacking involved, I often get annoyed at how unrealistic it is. And yes, it pulls me out of the story. Not that I’m a hacker, but having worked in IT for years and having a basic knowledge of firewalls, infrastructure, and network security, I know enough to be able to call bullshit when someone types a few keys and they’re in.
So I get it when people get annoyed when science-fiction relies too heavily on the fiction portion. Obviously, writers can’t please everyone, but I feel we do have to make a serious effort to make our stories, our fiction, as plausible as we can. Even if we’re making up the science or the people or the settings, we have to believe in them ourselves in order to get our readers to do the same.
It’s a balancing act. We have to write a good story, but at the same time, incorporate enough reality to allow our readers to immerse themselves, to buy in, to suspend their disbelief.
As I mentioned above, and in other blog posts, it comes down to writing for yourself, first. Write a story that you believe and believe in. If you find it plausible, then your reader probably will, too. It’s not enough to simply like your story, you have to have to love it, be passionate about it, immerse yourself in it.
If you believe it, the reader will, too.