How Is Fiction Ever Believable?

Books

In fiction you can take your reader on the most fantastical journeys providing you give them something to believe in at the outset.

When this doesn’t happen you end up with MCU movies, which are based on old comics from the 1960s/1970s and have very little to do with reality. When ‘Spiderman’ began, the main character, Peter Parker, was a believable young student and budding photographer. What on earth is he meant to be now? Aunt May aged backwards, every other character has had their backstory manipulated and reinvented, and still we buy into the concept.

Why?

Perhaps it’s connected to the single shared constant – a memory of the original books. We’re able to rejig it all in our heads without worrying too much because we can access our own memories of the comics. Clearly, those unfamiliar with Marvel get less from the films.

In much of the rest of fiction, historical dramas are featuring real characters more and more. We haven’t quite got to the point where Winston Churchill solves a crime but it can’t be far off.

A great many books and TV shows use real-life characters and situations to give their stories verisimilitude. I hate the disdainful, flippant manner in which the Holocaust is invoked to add instant tragic resonance to a story. This shorthanding of real-life tragedy is offensive and lazy, while turning a famous figure into a crime-solver is simply absurd, a fan fiction device that never proves satisfying.

Of course for a story to exist in the real world it helps to have a base of real-life background characters, but isn’t essential. Writers are struggling at the moment to decide whether they should incorporate the world pandemic into the lives of their characters. How much of the present day do you acknowledge? This is why it’s easier to set books in the past and write with hindsight.

Robert Harris is very good at setting his stories against real events. ‘Pompeii’ reimagined the natural tragedy through the eyes of a water engineer who could see that something terrible was going to happen. A good story does not always need to provide believability if the premise is believable. Michael Crichton’s ‘Jurassic Park’ was based on the idea that a mosquito could contain enough dinosaur blood to allow its DNA reconstruction, and even if this premise is scientifically flawed it at least sounds possible.

HG Wells wrote a story few remember – it’s a little bit racist now and probably won’t be anthologised any time soon – called ‘A Deal in Ostriches’. The opening line is:

‘Talking of the prices of birds, I’ve seen an ostrich that cost three hundred pounds,’ said the taxidermist.’

The tale concerns a diamond that has been swallowed by one of five ostriches, and the bidding war by greedy speculators to find it. You buy into this absurd tale because it’s believable that an ostrich might swallow a diamond. The ostrich that swallows odd items was once a popular trope.

(Spoiler: After an auction of the birds, which get split up and sold, it emerges that the whole affair was a scam.)

So perhaps a background of real disasters, real politicians and newsmakers is less important that coming up with something that feels believable – even though it really isn’t.

 

28 comments on “How Is Fiction Ever Believable?”

  1. Joel says:

    abraham lincoln, vampire slayer and and sense, sensibility, and zombies are two books/movies that come to mind…taking a known quantity, and putting them in crazy, absurd situations

  2. Vic says:

    “……..coming up with something that feels believable – even though it really isn’t.”
    Is this why the Guiness advert was selected? Intuitively I would have expected the swallowed glass to be the other way round. Or have I failed to understand Guiness’s intent.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    First of all, as I’ve said of myself before, I prefer a respite from the headlines and the 24/7 torrent of breaking news in my fiction. The ‘torn from the front pages’ efforts I’ve tried so far have left me wanting. They either felt incomplete, based on what I know to be still unfolding developments or, as if the contemporary elements were “bolted on” to provide a kind of shabby relevance or resonance— much as admin mentions in connection with the Holocaust.

    And in that regard, I do like historical fiction and the lashings of history, however, arcane, served up by CF in the B&M series, are a strong attractant for me. I am more than willing to allow for the creative (writer, filmmaker, playwright) to take liberties with an even well-known event or period, so long as there is internal verisimilitude in the telling of the story.

    In the end, I think ‘believability ‘ largely depends on how much suspension of disbelief the creative is willing to take on or, in other words, how much of the shared experience and understanding of their readers or viewers they are willing to include. There, of course, has to be some — but even the most nonconformist, fantastical tale can work with a bare minimum, if the introduction to the new world and its characters is sufficiently detailed at the outset and there is a consistency based on that understanding throughout the work. The creative strikes a bargain with the consumer of their creativity — and no one likes to feel cheated.

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    I hope authors can leave Mr. Churchill alone, although there is a great temptation there, especially since we know that there were a large number of things happening about which we have no idea at all.
    As for the pandemic, I’ve been waiting to see what happens. Characters wearing masks on tv is definitely not on since hard of hearing people have had enough trouble as it is without making lips unreadable and acting itself would be difficult. Books are not so bad because it’s all print words anyway, but I hope it is more a matter of referring back to problems that developed back “during that horrible time when we couldn’t visit and had to wear those masks” than plots happening during the pandemic, especially since there are so many sad stories from within it. Perhaps we have to get a generation away from it when the edges have perhaps softened just a little.

  5. Richard says:

    Sorry to report this, Chris, but we’re past the point where “Winston Churchill solves a crime.” Consider Attention to Murder: A Winston Churchill Mystery by Suzanne Thompson (2015): “The last thing Police Inspector Bert Rankings wants is to investigate a murder with a cocky cadet whose father is in the House of Commons but he quickly realizes that young Churchill is able to navigate the nuances of high society better than he can. Winston finds himself thrust in the murky waters between the British Secret Service, a secret society in India, his military commander, the beautiful widow and the proclivities of the victim himself.”

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    Speaking of unlikely sleuths, how about Groucho Marx (a six-book series) and Joe Biden and Barack Obama in a two-book mystery series ? Can Boris and Donald be far behind ?

  7. Roger says:

    “Donald” would be a Moriartiesque master criminal, Stu-I-Am. “Boris” a Wodehousian character – the intellect of Bertie and the qualities of Spode.

  8. A Holme says:

    We often refer to ‘the Immortal Jeeves’ though I’ve always thought that that epithet should apply to Bertie. His chief heroic quality is of course his amiability. Full of good intentions and only ever trying to do his best with no thought for personal gain or advancement, when he inevitably gets into a desperate situation – usually engaged to Madeleine Bassett – he always reacts with a stoic, ‘Rightho.’ So, World Leader Pretend Johnson, a lot nearer to Spode than Bertie, methinks.

  9. Peter T says:

    I’ve always seen Bertie as a heroic character. As to his intellect, he may not be the smartest individual with human relations, but he can set betting odds in a flash.

  10. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    There’s more than enough of Boris and Donald in real life without having to read fiction about them.
    Besides which, it would risk them believing it and adding to the fiction they already churn out.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Roger — spot on with Boris, I think, with perhaps a soupçon of Gussie Fink-Nottle thrown in for good measure. As for Donald, you’ve got the evil part down with the suggestion of a Moriarity-like character but, of course, without the same mental wherewithal behind it. And, as I was preparing this witty comment, I was sadly reminded that, in fact, Johnson did write the eminently forgettable uh…thriller…’Seventy-Two Virgins,’ featuring a bumbling Tory MP.

  12. Joan says:

    Would like to add Karen Harper’s, Elizabeth Tudor series. A young Princess and later on Queen has to solve murderous schemes with the help of an inner circle of friends including William Cecil. I really liked the first, The Poyson Garden, it hooked me. I find when enjoying these mysteries, it draws you into researching more on historical happenings, something that never happened in school! I would also recommend the new series, Becoming Elizabeth, that is now streaming.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    From ‘Crime Fiction Lover:’

    ”Bryant & May’s Peculiar London by Christopher Fowler
    We know that Bryant & May are matchless detectives, but how will they fare as tour guides? Find out on 14 July, with the arrival of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May’s Peculiar London. Fact and fiction combine as the nation’s oldest serving detectives take us along the streets of a city they know so very well, pointing out odd buildings, odder characters, lost venues, forgotten disasters, confusing routes, dubious gossip, illicit pleasures and hidden pubs. With the help of some of their more disreputable friends, they’ll reveal why only two Londoners got to meet Dracula, how a department store and a prison played tricks on your mind, and where the devils hide in the capital – plus much more. 
    Order now on Amazon or Bookshop.org’

  14. Alan R says:

    Luckily we have a new literary gendre, Realistic Fiction. This web definition brought a smile to my face.

    “Books in the realistic fiction genre are made up of stories that could really happen to real people and animals. The realistic genre plots involve things that could have taken place in real life, with the character reacting in the same manner as real people might react. There is less dramatization and stretching of the truth; the fantastical elements common in other works of fiction are somewhat suspended”.

    Realistic Fiction – now I’m really confused.

  15. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Alan R Alan — Actually we’ve had that category for some time — largely populated by autobiographies of political figures and their sycophantic biographies — with more to come.

  16. Lauren C says:

    The ostriches put me in mind of the Sherlockian story “The Blue Carbuncle”.

    Stephanie Barron has an excellent series, now near its natural end, of Jane Austen mysteries. Very well researched and free of anachronisms, e.g., Jane never pulls a weapon out of her reticule.

  17. Roger says:

    “Don’t move! This reticule is loaded!”
    – one of the great unused lines of literature, Lauren C.

  18. Ellen Reardon Joy says:

    I am not sure where to post this so that you see it, Mr. Fowler, but I am half-way through Oranges and Lemons after reading the earlier books in the series ALMOST in order, and I just have to tell you how totally amusing, interesting, surprising, and hilarious this PCU mystery is. My favorite thus far, and each book is better than the last, so can’t wait to read more. You are such a great writer, and having read Paper Boy, thank GOD for your mother:) So, thank you for so much great reading, such unforgettable characters, and many many hours spent away from home while sitting in my living room or propped up in bed. London in an armchair. What could be better during a pandemic!

  19. MSM says:

    A professor of mine in graduate school wrote a series of novels, starting with “The Detective & Mr. Dickens,” with the premise that Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins acted as a sort of Holmes & Watson alongside an Inspector in the then newly-formed Metropolitan Protectives. I think he wrote them solely as an excuse to do something with several decades of study of the time period and its literature, but not long after, I learned what fan-fiction was and realized he’d scored in a way not too many others doing the same kind of thing ever would.

  20. E Bush says:

    I just want to say I love your work and your blog. Thank you for creating Bryant and May and putting them in a London I would love to see.

  21. Marty says:

    Making “real people” into fictional sleuths is something I really don’t care for. Even the now-common use of famous fictional detectives in new stories rubs me the wrong way. If you can write a good mystery, why would you need the gimmick of a famous name, except for snob value? It’s kind of presumptuous too. Maybe even libelous–no wonder it’s usually dead people who are so “honored.”

    If Moriarity had the attention-span of Donald Trump, he would not have been a mastermind!

  22. Peter T says:

    Then Melania wrote Trump’s ‘Treatise on the Binomial Theorem’ and ‘Dynamics of Heavenly Bodies’? That explains the Einstein visa.

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    @PeterT Peter — And here I thought getting the “extraordinary ability” visa was for her Lesbian porn work and best performance in a continuing role.

  24. Roger says:

    I should really have said ““Donald” would be a would-be Moriartiesque master criminal”.

  25. Helen+Martin says:

    One reason for wanting to use prominent people as agents in one’s fiction would be to take advantage of specialist or privileged knowledge or access. Churchill would have both and give an investigation a definite leg up, likewise the Queen (Elizabeth I or II or Victoria) although dealing with security might be a problem with the Elizabeths.

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    MSM, I have a copy of the Detective and Mr. Dickens but I have only read the first part because it was really rather unpleasant, to use a Victorianism. Perhaps I’ll take another look.

  27. Charles says:

    Anyone truly interested in detective fiction wrapped in historical events should check out the prolific American mystery writer Max Allan Collins. For example, his “Disaster Series” takes a famous event from history and has a writer of fiction help to solve murders that occur during said event. Take Edgar Rice Burroughs in his “The Pearl Harbor Murders” or Leslie Charteris in “The Lusitania Murders”. Or should one wish to get started with a setting familiar to some of us on this blog, try “The London Blitz Murders” in which none other than Agatha Christie helps to get at the answers. Collins has numerous series of such books and I warn anyone who wishes to start reading him that his volumes number well over 200! I especially enjoy his Nathan Heller series in which his detective solves the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby (in “Stolen Away”), the Black Dahlia murder (in “Angel in Black”), and he even has the audacity to take on and “solve” the murder of Marilyn Monroe (in “Bye Bye, Baby”) and the assassination of JFK (in “Ask Not”).
    I have been reading CF’s “Bryant & May” books, mostly in order (although I did start with “The Memory of Blood”). My absolute favorite so far has to be “The Burning Man”. I am about to begin “Hall of Mirrors” and intend to finish the series some time in the early autumn. Stay well and keep going, Chris. You have a loyal following who are all rooting for you. Wish I could have made one of the events for “Peculiar London” but at age 80 my days of going to my favorite city are likely over. I live in the Midwest in the USA and have made the journey to London over 70 times–but then being a tour guide myself, that explains a lot of the travel in the past up until early 2020 when COVID hit. Love this blog and the B&M books.
    Perhaps someone here is already familiar with Mr. Collins’ works. In which case, for the rest of you, a whole new world awaits.

  28. Helen+Martin says:

    Charles, thank you for the whole new world that awaits. I will check our library system first. By the way, I, too, am 80 and not quite ready to stop the traveling I was just getting used to when health concerns stopped us both for a while. Mind you, travel insurance has a pretty deleterious affect on travel plans now.

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