Now there’s a word you don’t see every day, but still manage to experience on a daily basis whenever you read a book, watch a television drama, or listen to a “so I was walking along and minding my own business” story from one of your friends—essentially, whenever you have a story being told.

Here’s the definition from Wikipedia, since I’m too tired to go around rephrasing it and this isn’t a thesis paper anyways:

“Verisimilitude has its roots in both the Platonic and Aristotelian dramatic theory of mimesis, the imitation or representation of nature. For a piece of art to hold significance or persuasion for an audience, according to Plato and Aristotle, it must have grounding in reality. This idea laid the foundation for the evolution of mimesis into verisimilitude in the Middle Ages particularly in Italian heroic poetry. During this time more attention was invested in pinning down fiction with theory. This shift manifested itself in increased focus on unity in heroic poetry. No matter how fictionalized the language of a poem might be, through verisimilitude, poets had the ability to present their works in a way that could still be believed in the real world. Verisimilitude at this time also became connected to another Aristotelian dramatic principle, decorum: the realistic union of style and subject. Poetic language of characters in a work of fiction as a result had to be appropriate in terms of the age, gender or race of the character.

This classical notion of verisimilitude focused on the role of the reader in his/her engagement in the fictional work of art. The goal of the novel therefore, as it became a more popular form of Verisimilitude, was to instruct and offer a pleasurable experience to the reader. The fictional novel had to facilitate the reader’s willingness to suspend his or her disbelief, a phrase used originally by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Verisimilitude became the means to accomplish this mindset. To promote the willing suspension of disbelief, a fictional text needed to have credibility. Anything physically possible in the worldview of the reader or humanity’s experience was defined as credible. Through verisimilitude then, the reader was able to glean truth even in fiction because it would reflect realistic aspects of human life.”

To get the “too long, didn’t read” version: the way people and events are structured are going to have to be believable, or else people are going to call shenanigans on your work. This is doubly important while writing speculative fiction—despite the fact that you’re making stuff up, you can’t ask readers to eat any sort of shit you want to throw at them. People still need to be able to be able to relate to what’s going on and believe in it; verisimilitude controls willing suspension of disbelief, which then can be further diversified into the various Rules you’ve heard of: The Rule of Cool, Rule of Awesome, Rule of Funny, Rule of Romantic etc, etc. These basically take credits from the “verisimilitude bank” you’ve built up during the course of telling the tale, and uses them to ask the reader to go “all right, fine, I can accept this without thinking about it too much.”

I briefly touched upon this in “On the Antagonist Competency Clause”, so those who’ve read that, bear with me. Speculative fiction is heavily reliant on the willing suspension of disbelief to make things work. If you lose that, your entire work comes crashing down on your head. When a romance or mystery comes crashing down to to lack of suspension of disbelief, at least the world doesn’t go down with it, too.

Another important thing to remember are the reader’s guesses at your intentions—what you want to do with the work. A serious novel is going to get different treatment than a satirical novel, which is going to have a lot less silliness than a satirical or clearly silly comic, and all of these are going to have to meet different requirements and standards for what might be considered an “acceptable” level of verisimilitude.

Long-time readers of this journal may remember the little tiff I had in May over the BFT3King of Bitterwood. (I still get a laugh out of his “If you don’t like it, don’t read it!” response. Reminds me of a LOT of fanfic writers, expect maybe this one’s got better sentence structure.) I’ll be using it as the example here, since it’s the one freshest in people’s minds—but pretty much any book I’ve ever BFT3Ked has serious verisimilitude problems anyway. All of the exchanges are still archived on the II articles, so if you think I’m misrepresenting anything, go over there and have a gander.

Evil King is evil Because. He has surrounded himself with idiots, and his so-called kingdom isn’t crumbling. The whole succession system doesn’t make sense AT ALL (based on lions, you say? Lions don’t have to rule, manage taxes, do politics, have good people relations, have a culture, etc, etc, etc) Incompetent guards? That’s essentially saying that education and training is pointless. That systematic human (or alternatively, sentient) endeavour is pointless, to borrow a phrase from Mr. Zornhau. The reasons for racism and racial relations between the humans and so-called dragons is the flimsiest and stupidest, and the evil racists go about spewing crap that all the readers know is Really Bad—

—And then he goes on to claim he’s dealing with “serious issues” like religion, racism and genocide.

Yes. Really.

Excuse me? I call BULLSHIT. Eugenists and their like have been charismatic enough to make their views widely appealing to even the people of today, much less the people of the early twentieth century. Watch some old videos on youtube of Hitler when he gives speeches about the Jews, watch the people cheer for him. His beliefs of women—put them in the home and kitchen where they belong, and still if you look at some of the later 1939 speeches—the women are CHEERING HIM ON and packing the speech venues despite him stripping them of their rights. What I’m getting at here is that people are going to draw parallels between what happens in the story and what they know in real life, even if you’re writing speculative ficition. And if what they know and what you write doesn’t quite match up, they’re going to call shenanigans on it.

And then Bad Things happen. Really Bad Things. Readers start questioning details they would have handwaved away otherwise; the Rules, such as the Rule of Cool (which the author indirectly claimed to have used by saying he set up the novel to have as many cool fight scenes as possible) cease working anymore. People start questioning how your invisibibility powder works (after some careful thinking, unless the properties of photons are overhauled, I’m still not buying it), the flight mechanics of your dragons, the reasonablility of your conworld, the plausibility of being able to stick your hand into water to make it overcome its vapour pressure at that temperature and turn into steam—

The cracks appear, and they keep on widening over and over again until your entire narrative crumbles into a pile of disgusting rubble. To put it succinctly, Bitterwood heavily overdraws on the verisimilitude bank, and refuses to pay up, demanding greater and greater loans to accommodate the characters’ and conworld’s increasing stupidity.

It doesn’t help that the author is constantly behind the scenes on his little soapbox of snide atheism, warping the narrative and pointing and giggling at certain part of the text while saying “Look! it’s really SCIENCE! NOT MAGIC! NOT MAGIC AT ALL!” and “Ha ha! Religion is bad! Ha! Ha!” (IIRC, he went on to say that he felt he was “betraying the atheist community by writing a novel with fantastical elements”, or something on those lines.) The point is, by doing this he’s altering the reader’s expectations of the book to “hard” science fiction, as opposed to fantasy or even “soft” science fiction like most space operas which handwave away things like the Force and dilithium crystals and Warp Drive. (Oh, Anne McCaffrey, I remember the good times before you came up with AIVAS and that disgusting triple-helix DNA and tried explaining it all away as SCIENCE)

I really, really want to borrow a copy of Hogfather from the library so I can copy out Death’s little speech on needing to believe the little lies so that we can work our way up to the big ones. Fellow Pratchett fans, you know what I’m talking about.

But now the readers are expecting hard science fiction and a serious examination of possibilities stemming from today’s frontiers of science, and instead they get hazy explanations, if any. (Nanomachines. Oh, yeah. SF’s version of “a wizard did it”.) Plop goes the versimilitude.

Compare this to Dr. McNinja . The first important thing to note is that a) it’s in a visual format (comic) and that it clearly makes the statement right at the outset (with a gorilla as a receptionist and a disease that makes people vomit maple syrup and turn into giant lumberjacks filled with rage at trees) that it’s not to be taken seriously. The entire comic runs on the Rule of Cool, and this particular April Fool’s Day strip summarises the comic’s spirit:

Point made, and hopefully, point taken. The reader’s expectations of the comic, the storyline, and all that happens within from human jetpacks powered by farts to drugs that turn normal people into ninjas to the suggestion that mountain dew is really a cheap imitation of a powerful and addictive drink that is sold by a mysterious train car manned by people in 18th-century dress, are changed appropriately—and with it, the (specific) requirements for versimilitude. It’s important to note that people still can somewhat relate to the characters, that the antagonists are reasonably sane despite having moon bases and are a credible threat, that people can BELIEVE in what’s happening in the world of the comic.

As Dr. McNinja proves, you don’t NEED to stick to scientific fact and reality to get verisimilitude, but when you trap yourself in that particular cage and try to cry foul—sucks to be you.

And that’s that.

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Comment

  1. Danielle on 4 September 2009, 15:58 said:

    Excellent article. I guess it all comes down to one thing: Your world can be as crazy as you want it to be, but it has to be consistent.

    (On a side note, that Dr. McNinja comic was AMAZING! Absolutely hilarious!)

  2. ProserpinaFC on 4 September 2009, 16:34 said:

    Here, here! To the willing suspension of disbelief! And that other word you said!

    It’s a hard sell to mix “dragon” with “hard science fiction”. Non-humans in science fiction are called “aliens.”

    “But they ARE from Earth. My non-humans are reviled to be humans turned into monsters by experimentation!”

    “Those are called ‘experiments,’ not dragons.”

    “The reader can’t know that they are experiments yet.”

    “Like you’re first with that plot twist. Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green is people… Why hide their origin from the reader AND the humans in story? Once upon a time in Alternative Present America, anthro-draco creatures took over the South, where it’s common sense to teach 13-year-old boys to shoot large animals while riding motorbikes? And the humans called their oppressors not aliens, demons or anything decidedly more morbid and evil, but also never investigated into what they actually were and came from?”

    “Yep.”

    “Okay, glad we could have this talk.”

    ——— So, call a science experiment a dragon, put them in modern times yet in a Standard Fantasy feudal government, let them rule America through superior science but not enough that they don’t need human slaves, make up technology but try to explain it like its hard science fiction AND make the Dragon King evil, without peer or equal, and incompetent? That’s some hard verisimilitude to swallow.

  3. sansafro187 on 4 September 2009, 19:29 said:

    I liked this article, and I think verisimilitude is indispensable if you’re trying to tell a story with any degree of seriousness.

    Verisimilitude is the difference between movies like Iron Man/BB/TDK and movies like, well, every horrible comic book movie you’ve ever seen. They all have ridiculous elements in them, but the good ones can pull those elements off credibly.

    I thought the bank analogy was a good one. The more effective your overall verisimilitude, the more literary capital you get from the reader, which means you get to do more cool shit.

    Like many of your articles, this feels timely with my own project. A few scenes ago I got carried away and ended a fight with somebody using a sword to cut a bullet, which is more or less impossible. Hopefully, if my verisimilitude was strong enough up until that point, it would be a major OHSHI- moment for the reader. If it wasn’t, it’ll just seem ridiculous and unrealistic.

  4. Artimaeus on 4 September 2009, 23:07 said:

    Now I know why I didn’t like Spider Man 3…

  5. Snow White Queen on 5 September 2009, 00:53 said:

    Yes, I liked the bank analogy too. It was nice and clear for me.

    All in all, great article, Lccorp!

  6. swenson on 5 September 2009, 09:12 said:

    @sansa – but… but… they did it in X-men…

    Which I suppose only goes to prove llcorp2’s point- the X-men world might be ridiculous if you stop and consider each element of it on its own (a guy has claws that come out of his hand? A chick has the ability to change into any human shape and automatically takes on all the unique attributes of that form, in direct defiance to conservation of mass? etc.), but it all makes sense together, and besides, the Rule of Cool reigns there- you don’t question the elements because making it less ridiculous would make it less awesome. Besides, nobody in the X-men world asks you to take it as hard sci-fi.

    I guess it all has to do with the expectations you set your reader up to have… Dr. McNinja’s particular world is an excellent example of how absolutely ridiculous things can be completely accepted by the readers without anyone calling shenanigans. But none of it would work in something that even presumed to follow any of the laws of the Real World.

    Great article! It’s an excellent point people need to remember.

  7. Danielle on 5 September 2009, 12:19 said:

    @ Artimaeus:

    Funny thing, though….I liked it while I was watching it in theaters, but then I saw it again a few days ago, and I was either laughing hysterically or going “What the heck! A guy doesn’t get stabbed in the heart and then hang around long enough to apologize to his best friend/enemy/collegue/parter in superheroness!”

    I always thought they could’ve redeemed most of that movie by killing Peter instead of Harry. It would’ve been more interesting.

  8. NeuroticPlatypus on 5 September 2009, 17:56 said:

    The Rule of Cool, Rule of Awesome, Rule of Funny, Rule of Romantic

    I’ve never heard of these. I’ll have to look them up or something later.

    BT3K

    What does that stand for?

    Great article by the way. We were talking about verisimilitude in English because of Macbeth.

  9. The Drunk Fox on 8 September 2009, 16:51 said:

    NeuroticPlatypus: The Rule of Cool, Funny, etc., is basically if something is cool, funny, or whatever enough, the audience can overlook the fact that it doesn’t make sense. And I believe BFT3K is short for Bad Fiction Theater 3000, lccorp2’s take on Mystery Science Theater 3000.