Some Attempts at (Re)Definition: Believability

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. The first post is here.

the differences and similarities between various characters’ expectations

One of the most distracting conversations in workshop occurs in the name of “believability.” “It’s not believable,” a student says (using an example from my MFA) about an all-day bike ride, “it’s not realistic, this wouldn’t happen.” It’s obvious that the student can’t mean this literally, since the same person leveling the term in criticism can happily read about wizards in London or watch a superhero film.

In the MFA workshop I was in that allowed the conversation about whether or not the character could have ridden a bike for that long to go on for five minutes of a half-hour critique, the writer used his chance at the end of workshop then to say: “I did this bike ride.”

Neither the criticism nor its defense are helpful in a craft sense.

A popular workaround comes in the form of: “It breaks the rules of the story.” This teaches writers to build into earlier parts of the story the possibility for the story to do something “unbelievable” or “unrealistic” later. It’s not a bad solution—this is certainly one way of making something strange seem less strange—but it doesn’t actually get at the operative element here. This is a solution that says: make the strange less strange. It works for the kind of magical realism or where no one thinks magic is out of the ordinary, but not for the kind of story where the surprise of a new element is supposedto shift the story to new ground.

Take, for example, a domestic drama about a couple falling apart. They fight, they break up. They go their separate ways. One of them falls ills and dies. The other goes to the wake, to remember their good times. At the wake the body stands up and starts eating brains. Now it’s a zombie story.

You could build the possibility of zombies into the rules of the story, the way “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” starts with the grandmother not wanting to go to Florida where the Misfit broke out of prison, and ends with the Misfit killing the grandmother—you could make the illness mysterious or give one of the couple a dream about zombies or make their first date going to see a zombie flick—but it would be wrong to suggest that you shouldplant these kinds of seeds, drop these kinds of hints.

It’s not actually prior rules that make zombies seem like a frustrating turn of events or an interesting one. Some of it is actually personal taste or the question of audience—I never questioned the bike ride because I didn’t care whether a bike ride could go on all day or not; I would be happy to see zombies interrupt this familiar domestic story. When we say it’s not “believable” or “realistic” or that we don’t “buy it” or that it’s not “earned,” we really mean that the story doesn’t seem to recognize that something unusual has happened. This is why planting seeds is one way to make the change read more “smoothly.” But it’s not the only way.

One of the most useful tricks I learned from my MFA was when Margot Livesey said about a believability complaint, “Just make someone in the story question the believability.” If a character within the story brings up the objection, then readers are often happy to let someone else make it. This also gives you a chance, whether you use it or not, to explain.

This may be why you read so many novels where narrators say it is like they are in a novel and why you see so many movies where characters say they feel like they are in a movie. It’s like addressing the opposing view before they can make their argument.

Where something like a craft of believability could be useful to the fiction writer is in the difference between multiple characters’ reactions. In the kind of magical realism where magic is normal, no characters question the magic. They all expect it. If one character, for example, questions the dead lover becoming a zombie, but everyone else sees it coming, this is a different story than if everyone sees it coming or no one sees it coming or it’s half and half.

Really the shock from the sudden appearance of a zombie is not unlike the shock from reading that a person has ridden a bike all day without stopping or, for that matter, that the zombies which started out slow and stumbling have suddenly become fast and athletic. The change needs to be addressed. An unusual event does the most work for a story when it involves the development of belief or disbelief—once I heard Kazuo Ishiguro read and talk about strangeness in a novel as a dial, that he thinks of it as turning the dial up or down, that if a tiger walks into a boardroom and everyone freaks out, the dial is turned down to our “reality,” and if everyone ignores the tiger, the dial is turned far up. A tiger walking into a boardroom can tell you what kind of story you’re in, but/and it can also changewhat kind of story you’re in. I’m a sucker for when a story can pull off the change, when it can break its own rules or suddenly make completely different rules make sense.

To extend Ishiguro’s example: if everyone freaks out except for one person, for example, and that person calmly takes a tiger weapon out of his bag and shoots the tiger, then the tiger has become an opportunity for the story to go in a new direction. Or, for example, if a few people say, “I’ve heard of this happening to friends of mine,” while others are completely surprised. Or—etc.

I find this question of who believes something happened or not comes up a lot in life. It usually has to do with privilege. Take what we often call “microaggressions.” It’s often the case, in my experience, that to write about racist incidents is to have those events or their racism called into question. This happens in workshop as it happens on the internet. I have been in multiple workshops where students have basically said either No one is that bador That isn’t so bad. Then there’s the comment that starts with “not all” and ends with embarrassment. I’ve had peers tell me I need to include non-racist white people for balance.

These are foremost questions of audience, of course. This is because believability is usually leveled against events and characteristics that most of the workshop has not experienced or has the privilege to ignore. Just as in the bicycle example, this is true of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

The writer can choose not to address these audiences. The point is that believability needs to be redirected away from who is reading the story and toward who is within the story, if it is to be useful to the writer. Beliefs sometimes seem like the last things writers give characters, far lower on the list than facial features or fashion sense. Yet the measure of belief within a story is something an author can use and control, to say something about the world of the story and about the world in which we live.

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