In the last few weeks, there has been some interesting discussion on author Nancy Kress’s blog and The League of Extraordinary Writers regarding the believability of the Hunger Games books.
That got me thinking about the whole concept of realistic vs. believable. Which is more important? Can you have one without the other? Or must they have equal weight? Let’s look at the definitions:
1. interested in, concerned with, or based on what is real or practical: a realistic estimate of costs; a realistic planner.
2. pertaining to, characterized by, or given to the representation in literature or art of things as they really are: a realistic novel.
3. resembling or simulating real life
1. to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so 2. to have confidence or faith in the truth of (a positive assertion, story, etc.); give credence to
3. to have confidence in the assertions of (a person)
4. to have a conviction that (a person or thing) is, has been, or will be engaged in a given action or involved in a given situation
5. to suppose or assume; understand
So, basically, one can see if something is realistic either by the way something is shown, or by relating to it with personal experience. In either case, it’s a tangible or specific kind of thing. If one finds something believable, then one may not know whether it’s real, but it’s been presented in a way that looks/sounds/seems plausible.
In Ms. Kress’s case, she found the premise behind the Hunger Games unrealistic, but many people still found it believable. So does that mean believability is more important than realistic? Maybe. It all comes down to how it’s done.
Many science fiction or fantasy novels are based on ideas that aren’t realistic: spaceships, cryogenic freezing, magic wands, dragons, etc. However, the best of these stories are solidly constructed such that the unrealistic becomes believable. Achieving this goal can be done by creating a rich and thorough setting with established rules.
Take Candor, for example. In the real world, it’s not possible to brainwash someone through subliminal messages (not to this extent, anyway), but the story is so solidly constructed that the reader can believe it’s possible in this instance. Same with Harry Potter. Rowling built her world with so many intricacies and details that the reader can totally believe there’s a whole world of magic hidden from normal humans.
But what about people? What does it mean for characters to be believable and realistic? Here, I think the need changes drastically. I think characters need to be equally realistic and believable. Actually, with characters, I think the terms realistic and believable are synonymous. For example, it’s neither realistic nor believable that a parent would briefly pop in on a beloved child in the hospital, even if that child was a teenager or a legal adult. Not without a good reason, anyway. A really good reason. No. That parent would be at his child’s side for the duration, providing all the love and support he could.
This also applies to groups of people. Here, however, there is a need for caution. It’s easy to lump a group of people together and think of them as one, and then assign them a certain behavior. Some examples:
Career women don’t spend enough time with their families.
Old people can’t keep up with the times.
An oppressed populace doesn’t have the will to rebel.
It’s more accurate to say that some career women don’t spend enough time with their families. Or that most old people can’t keep up with the times. Or that most oppressed people don’t have the will to rebel against their oppressors. But it’s neither realistic nor believable to make a statement like this about all of them.
A crowd /populace/category/etc. of people is really a group of individuals. And individuals react differently to different things. This needs to be taken into account as a group evolves over time. Change doesn’t happen easily within a group, but it does happen. And it almost always starts with an individual.
This post is now entirely too long, so I’ll stop. But I’d love to know what you think. Do you think believability is more important that realistic? Do you think it extends beyond what I’ve talked about here? Do you think I’m wrong? Please, do tell!