Thursday, May 26, 2011

Verisimilitude in Fiction

Reading thuRsday

"Truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, "was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster." (see Wikipedia)

I certainly enjoyed the humor of truthiness, but there's a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word who's original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is "the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood." (Webster 1886)

Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you're dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.

There is an art to giving readers enough of the appearance of truth in your story that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Howard Tayler is fond of saying, "Explain the heck out of something small, then wave your hands over the big things." In other words, show your readers you know what you're talking about in one case and they're more likely to assume you also know what you're talking about in others.

The essence of the art is to understand and apply real-world patterns and structures in your stories. For example, we talked last month about getting dystopian societies right by applying the pattern of winners and losers (i.e, that one person's dystopia is another's utopia and thus the latter has a vested interest in maintaining the system at the expense of the former).

Similarly, as L.E. Modesitt points out, even in a fantasy world you can't ignore basic laws of economics (like how much farm land and how many people it takes to support a single knight in the battle field in a medieval economy.)

We'll return to this topic in the coming weeks. In the mean time, consider what you can do to increase the verisimilitude in your fiction.


Image: Michelle Meiklejohn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net