The action was intense, the characterization engrossing, and the plot engaging.
Then an herbalist held up a mushroom and said, “We will use this plant-”
I’ve never opened the book again.
We all have our own large or small points where the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. Fantasyland basidiomycetous fruiting bodies might actually be plants, but in my world, painstakingly bad Botany or Mycology is a guaranteed book-closer.
I could talk about some of the larger things that pull us out of our fantasylands- political viewpoints, shoe-horned narration, massive plot inconsistencies, and terrible handling of serious issues.
Honestly though, I am far more interested in the little things, our own personal fields of knowledge, that prevent us from continuing stories we are otherwise enjoying.
A friend told me once about how she couldn’t read any modern writing about time periods from before 1900. The dialogue was the worst, she said. We can recognize physical anachronisms, but language is so tightly tied to how we think and act that it creeps into even the best-intentioned writing. We have to pull ourselves out at the root to sink into the thoughts and words of someone whose life is so removed from our own.
That has always stuck with me.
I don’t think that it applies only to language.
We model our interactions with the world on our own head and our own thoughts. If we want to change that when we read or write, we need to show tremendous empathy or tremendous research. The hard part of either of these things is that we don’t know what we don’t know.
Most people would know that something was wrong with the herbalist’s comment. Most people wouldn’t have the deep frustration that rises in someone like me who has spent a lot of time trying to work through that particular misunderstanding in their own work. There are few people for whom it would be an absolute dealbreaker.
I’m willing to bet though that if I went back through the story there would be other places of not-quite-right, nagging spots of irritation for those who care.
It is possible to overdo this.
It is possible to argue over the realistic power per inch of a fictional magical system when facing an equally fictional vampiric hedgehog.
But even here, the core of these complaints is that we want the writers to care. We want writers to care enough to do some, even if not all homework, if they reference real world objects or situations. We want writers to care enough to be consistent in the fictional forces they create.
It doesn’t matter how much power per inch a fictional fireball musters, as long as it sits consistently and realistically within the created world.
Suspension of disbelief is not about drearily sticking only to the absolute path the day has taken.
Suspension of disbelief is about building a day that feels like we could follow its path.
The herbalist can call the mushroom a plant, but give me a world where it makes sense that plants and fungi are the same.
We do not all have the same points of breaking, but we want our stories to care enough that we can see where the world has bent and how we can follow our own path down its changing corridors.
Pedantic is a big word. I wear it with pride.
I try as much as possible to run a consistent, if chaotic, universe. If you’d like to see my version of controlled chaos, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.