How far will a reader stretch their imaginationWritten By

Jeffrey Collyer

For most of us, the suspension of our disbelief is quite natural when we’re reading works of fiction. That’s not necessarily true for all genres and all books, of course, but certainly within the fictional world I inhabit, it is. And for a large number of YA books it’s certainly true.


Whether it’s paranormal, urban fantasy, dystopian, or my own genre of traditional fantasy, there are core elements of the story that revolve around things we just wouldn’t believe in ‘real life’. After all, whether it be dragons or powerful magic; whether the story includes traditional dwarves and elves or whether it tells of more original strange races; these are all the stuff of imagination. We don’t expect to see trolls walking down the local shopping centre, but we’re quite happy to belief they’re real on the written page.


It’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved the fantastical in books – within the pages of a mythical story I can retreat from the cares and worries of life. I can transport myself to another world and pretend I am soaring with powerful dragons, or use magic to protect those I love. In short, fantasy requires me to allow the impossible – welcome it even.


But our suspension of disbelief only goes so far. We often expect the characters we’re reading about to be in mortal danger. Thus, a sword through the heart will still kill the hero. After all, what’s at stake if the characters we love are invulnerable? What do they really overcome if the outcome is a foregone conclusion?


For me, there are other limits to my suspension of disbelief, too. For example, take the guy on the image above. Now I’m sure he’s a lovely chap, and I really hope he finds love. Really, I do.


But if the story I’m reading finds a twenty-year old supermodel gorgeous woman falling for him, I’ll probably snort and put the book down. Why? Because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in real life; at least not sufficiently often to make it believable. I’m happy to suspend my disbelief for magic, but not so much for relationships: I expect those to be realistic.


The limits of your suspension of disbelief may be different from mine, but I’m sure there are things – maybe small nuances of daily life – you just couldn’t accept much change to. While all the while you’ll happily accept the werewolves, or the zombies, or whatever the ‘magic’ of your story involves.


So our willingness to go along with the fantastical has its limits. Within the parameters of the world that has been built (even if it’s a twist on our modern world), we expect normality to rule, and if we read something that seems contrary to that normality, then a part of us rebels against what we’re reading: our satisfaction levels with the story fall.


All of that said, there are some elements of fantasy stories that would still struggle under scrutiny, but which as a reader (and, yes, as a writer) I’m happy to gloss over. This is true especially within portal fantasies, like my own – where the protagonist is transported from one world (usually our modern world) into the fantasy setting.


For example:


  • So main boy/girl suddenly ends up in strange world and, hey, everyone speaks a form of modern English. Wow, what a coincidence! Okay, sometimes in fantasy the characters of the magical realm will use a more formal version of English, but basically it’s English from the last couple of hundred years. Amazing.


  • The writer has two choices here. First, they can have foods within their fantasy world that are all familiar to those of planet earth – again we have the same issue as above. Really?! Alternatively, they can come up with all new foods, or some kind of hybrid between the two. If it’s a portal fantasy, then the new foods option has the problem of our recently transported heroes suddenly hit with a diet unlike anything they’ve come across before. What would that do to their digestion? Well, we’ll just ignore it. It’s for the best really. No, really it is.


  • Every magical realm in pretty much every book has horses. They’re convenient to get places quickly. They may have other strange animals, because – well evolution has happened differently in this other world of course. Except for horses, which weren’t even global on planet earth until people started transporting them across the seas.


  • I sometimes think it would be amusing for a main character, in the middle of an extended scene where the fate of the world hangs in the balance to say, ‘Sorry villain, but can we take five minutes please? I need a pee.’  What about body odour and bad breath? Our unwitting hero can come from a comfy 21st century home and not be remotely bothered with completely different standards of hygiene. Two months trekking through wilderness, interspersed with sweaty battles. No problem – won’t even notice. Good looking girl; she wants to kiss you. Won’t even notice the fact that she hasn’t brushed her teeth, well, ever.


I’ve thought about these issues myself in my own stories, but with a couple of exceptions have mostly decided to ignore them. While I could come up with something to explain the fact that everyone speaks English within the story, I decided it would be pretty tedious for the reader, and overall would do more harm than good. It’s something readers are used to and will accept, so despite the fact that it’s not believable I’ve left it alone. Hey, it’s a story. People will suspend their disbelief.


What about you? Anything you’ve read, and gone “Hey, I can do the suspension of disbelief, but this is taking it too far”?