Making your Reader Believe:

Whether he wants to or not!

Some time ago I read Patricia McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy. I enjoyed it in many ways, but the most memorable thing about these books was that they convinced me that I could shapeshift into a tree. Mind you, I was in my late twenties at that time and intellectually I knew I couldn’t do any such thing—but in my heart, where it counts, I believed  that I could do it. In speculative fiction, more than any other genre, you have to earn the reader’s suspension of disbelief. Why more than in other genres? Because in a “real” story, readers will easily believe in an airplane or a skyscraper, but in fantasy, SF, or horror you have to persuade them to believe, emotionally if not intellectually, in the unreal. There probably lots of elements involved in this, but these are the ones I’ve identified so far.

The most important thing, especially if you’ve got people from a society like ours who are encountering magic, aliens or the supernatural for the first time, is to have your character react to the unbelievable in a believable way. One of the most common mistakes I see in amateur fantasy is characters from our world, who see/experience something magical and respond with acceptance, or mild interest, instead of shock, skepticism and disbelief. I’m hallucinating. This is a trick. Am I on Candid Camera? are some of the believable reactions to seeing something you know to be impossible. Instant acceptance, Wow, this must be magic, is not.

I think maybe writers make this crucial mistake because they think that if the character accepts what she sees the reader will too. In fact, the exact opposite is true—the harder the character is to convince, the more skeptical they are, the more tests to which they subject this strange thing before they accept it, the more likely the reader is to accept it as well.

I once read an essay about one of Stephen King’s vampire books—I think it was Salem’s Lot, though I’m not certain—I haven’t read it. The writer who was analyzing the story said that King made suspension of disbelief work by having all the human characters ignore clue after clue—looking at all the logical explanations and completely ignoring the supernatural ones, until the reader is jumping up and down in his chair muttering, “You fools, there are vampires in this town!”

Another trick that works is to describe your otherworldly whatever-it-is in great, physical detail—and to describe its interactions with the non-magical world in the way that it would work if it were real. Let your character be close enough to the fireball to feel the heat on her face and hands like a sunburn, and smell the scent of scorched grass/wood/flesh. Let your golden, horse-sized griffin not only be beautiful, and glowing with light, let the reader hear the scratching sound its claws make as it walks across the hardwood floor, and see the gouges left in the wood. Even better, make them responsible for repairing the damaged floor, or at least let them hear the irked mutter of the manor’s handyman from the back of the crowd, “’Ere! Who’s gonna fix that?”

An editor speaking at a conference read the first paragraph of Wind in the Willows to the audience. Mole, who is doing his spring cleaning, not only contends with brooms, dusters and pails of whitewash, but also with dust in the throat and eyes, splashes of whitewash in the fur, an aching back, weary arms, and a bad case of spring fever. The editor concluded, “I absolutely believe that this is how moles spring clean their houses.”

The final trick, perhaps harder to pull off than the others because it’s more nebulous, is to be certain that the magic is emotionally “right.” This is particularly hard because “right” is going to vary from one fictional world to the next.

Terry Prachett, on a panel at Torcon3, said that magic should have a price attached to it—meaning, I think, that the energy, the power has to come from somewhere, and the mage should have to pay for it somehow. I tend to agree, and yet the wizards and witches who attend Hogwarts School are born with their power, and don’t seem to pay any price for wielding it. And in J. K. Rowling’s universe, I’m fine with that, because it suits that particular fictional world.

On the other hand, in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, the universe always extracts a price for magic—sometimes from the wizard’s personal energy, sometimes from other sources—and the responsible use of the universe’s energy is what wizardry is about. I have to confess to a particular fondness for Duane’s system, in which almost everything is alive in some fashion, and wizards are knights who fight against the entropy death of the universe. Not only does this resonate with me emotionally, but it lends itself to explaining some things about the universe that should have magical explanations—for instance, there’s a priceless scene in the first part of A Wizard Alone where Kit’s new VCR and the universal remote are insulting each other in Japanese as they obdurately refuse to work together—and they won’t even speak to the TV.

It should also go without saying—though I’m going to say it—that whatever system you create needs to be internally consistent, and used consistently. If casting simple-spell-A takes nothing more than a word and a casual gesture, then you’d better have a good reason why casting simple-spell-B requires three hours of preparation and half a dozen exotic components. And if you’ve established that your shuttlecraft can land on a planet and rescue people, then there had better be something to stop you from sending a shuttle to rescue the freezing crewmembers when the transporter breaks down and strands them.

I think that the real trick of creating magic, or a future, or a supernatural world that a reader will believe in, is to create a universe that your reader wants to believe in—and then make your magic, or whatever, an intrinsic part of that universe. When your characters become loved friends, and the universe they move in is as familiar as the reader’s own easy chair—when the reader’s heart believes, then his intellect will surely follow.

Spring 2004

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