Monday, August 30, 2010

Realistic vs. Believable Fiction

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!


Bish Denham said...

I don't know if the argument is realistic vs believability. I think in ALL fiction, particularly scifi and fantasy, it's suspension of belief that needs to occure. At least it does for me. When I/we watch a movie, see a play, read a book, I/we must set aside belief (because we KNOW it isn't REAL) so that we can enjoy the story. And ultimately for me, what makes a story "believable" are the characters and how they interact with each other, their surroundings and/or circumstances. You can put anyone in any kind of setting, if the character isn't believable then suspension of belief in regards to the fictional setting and/or story is going to be difficult for me to maintain.

beth said...

This was an interesting post. Bish is right, suspension of disbelief is necessary for sci-fi and fantasy. And for me, it was somewhat necessary for the Hunger Games. But many things which go on in The Hunger Games go on to a lesser extent in our society, and it was dystopia. I thought it did a good job of exploring what if the evils of modern society went even further, too far.

Tabitha said...

Actually, I think you guys are saying the exact same thing I'm saying. We're just using different terms. :)

When you know something in a story isn't real, like many things in SF/F/Dystopia/etc, but can mentally set that aside and still enjoy the story, then it's been solidly constructed. That's what you're saying, right?

If so, then we're saying the same thing, whether it's called 'unrealistic but believable' or 'suspending disbelief.' :)

Tabitha said...

Bish, you're SO right about the characters. The world and the plot could be so solid you could drop a cement truck on it and it wouldn't crack, but if the characters can't pull it off then the whole story will fail. That's why I think the characters must be both realistic and believable.

Fi-chan (Bookish-Escape) said...

It's fiction. They don't need to be realistic, it's FICTION!

Just make it believable, with great reason, aka paranormal / supernatural / etc.

Though, it sometimes depends on the genre or the plot or the purpose of the novel.

So yeah, believability > realistic.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

It may also merit noting that real-life doesn't always ring true in the pages of a book (or manuscript).

I'm always hearing beginning writers say, "But that's how it really happened!" which doesn't matter at all if it doesn't work in the larger story.

Kay Theodoratus said...

I think Collins presented us with a "what if" situation and wrote about it so well that it was easy to suspend belief and enter her vision of that world.

Tabitha said...

Fi-chan - I completely agree, at least as far as setting and plot go. Do you have the same opinion about characters? If so, then how do you separate realistic from believable and still create a fully fleshed-out character? I can't figure this one out, so I'd love to hear your opinion.

Cynthia - an *excellent* point!! I'm really glad you brought that up, because I think it deserves mentioning.

Kay - yes, Collins did create a very solid world, so it makes it easy for the reader to believe the things that we know aren't real. I think all really good SF/F/etc finds a really good 'what if' question and then goes to great lengths to answer it. :)

Bethany Mattingly said...

I never actually though about the difference between realistic and believable, but you've definitely gotten me thinking more about it. I think you're spot on in what you've posted, especially when pertaining to individual characters and groups of people. Great post!

Tabitha said...

Thanks! I hadn't thought much about it until I read thoses posts about Hunger Games. I love posts like that that make me think! :)

writerjenn said...

Here's the thing about Shusterman's UNWIND: I didn't really buy the premise on which that world was built (the war and the rules that came out of it). BUT, given those rules for that world, I found the events of the novel completely believable. This is one of my favorite recent reads, and I recommend it to others all the time. So I think this is another twist: a believable world built on a not-necessarily-believable assumption.