decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
[personal profile] decemberthirty
Today I am thinking about the question of believability in fiction. A vital question--if you can't make your audience believe in the story you are telling, then what's the point of telling it?--but also a slippery one. What makes one story more believable than another? Why can one writer make me believe things that seem entirely implausible from another? What makes a story feel true when I know perfectly well that it is a fiction? It can be easy to assume that the answer is realism, or that believability and realism are interchangeable ideas, but I don't think that's true. There are works of fantasy, strange dream-like works, outlandish bits of magical realism that have felt more believable to me than stories that take place in the most realistic of settings.

So what is it? Consistency is part of it, of course, and character is perhaps the most important component of all--it I don't believe in the characters, if their actions seems artificial or their words ring false, then forget--there is not likely to be anything that will redeem the story for me. But it's not just that, of course. It is a quality unto itself, something ineffable, something fundamental to the act of creating fiction. Some stories don't strive for it. Satire, for instance, is rarely rooted in believability. And some writers actively undermine it, like Ian McEwan, who seems to have made his name in literature by writing stories that purposely highlight their own artifice. And that's fine. Stories can be entertaining without being believable; they can have interesting things to say; they can be ironic or clever or funny or beautifully written. But I have never felt a deep emotional resonance with a story in which I could not wholeheartedly believe. I have never loved a story I did not wholeheartedly believe.

I am thinking about this today because last night I finished a book with a believability problem: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. The book concerns three women: Tony, a tough-minded historian; a flaky New Ager named Charis; and Roz, a garrulous but highly successful business woman. The three are ostensibly friends, though we scarcely see them interact with each other and they seem to have nothing in common besides the fact that, at one time or another, all three of them have been manipulated, duped, and had a man stolen from them by a mysterious and mysteriously powerful woman named Zenia. Atwood gives us the back story of each of the three friends in turn--first her childhood (each one difficult in its own way), next her relationship with the man in question (each one dysfunctional in its own way), finally the fateful entry of Zenia.

And it seems funny that I had trouble believing these stories because none of them, on the surface, are that farfetched. It's not impossible for people to fall in love with people who are bad for them. It's not impossible for people to want desperately to keep a relationship alive, even when anyone can see that the relationship was unhealthy. It's not impossible for people to believe a whole pack of lies, especially when the lies are specifically constructed to be something they want to believe. It's not even impossible for people who are intelligent to do all of these things. Yet when the women in Atwood's story did them, I couldn't believe in it. What is missing from the story that would make me believe? What would it take to get me to feel for these women whose lives are so stagnated that they can't get over what Zenia did to them so many years ago? I don't know. I couldn't feel for them. I could only say, "Are you kidding? It's been decades, and all three of them still think about this shit every day? Are you kidding? None of the various abuses, abandonments, and deprivations they suffered as children taught them the resiliency to deal with this situation? Not one of them has taken the time to reflect on whether or not the man that Zenia stole was really all that great to begin with?"

Not everything about the book was awful, of course. There were individual scenes that were highly compelling, and I really liked the way Atwood presented Charis's nutty New Age beliefs sincerely, in the same way Charis herself would have presented them. Tony was an interesting character, and her individual narrative the strongest of the bunch. But in the end the fact that I could not believe in the story or the characters sunk the book for me. Ah well. It is interesting to note that Surfacing, my favorite of the Atwood novels I've read, tells a story that, on the surface, is much more far-out than the story of The Robber Bride, yet I had no trouble at all in finding that one believable....

Date: 2014-04-28 10:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] marchioness.livejournal.com
What makes a story believable or not, for me, is the element of friendship. Of course, there are other elements, like writing and style, that are so important but also so hard to define. But you mention that the friendships in the Atwood book are rarely explicated, though these women are supposed to be close and they share an experience that defines the book. It's easy to write about the chemistry of romance, in my opinion, but not so easy to write about friendship in a way that's meaningful and geniune and interesting.

Date: 2014-04-28 10:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Oh, that's interesting. Now you've got me wracking my brains for examples of books that do a good job of depicting believable friendships. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is the first thing that comes to mind. And maybe the friendship between Sammy and Joe in Kavalier and Clay, and the group of friends in Graham Swift's Last Orders. Perhaps also William Maxwell's The Folded Leaf, although there is a certain unexplored erotic element to that friendship, which maybe makes it not quite eligible... Worth noting, perhaps, that all the examples I've come up with are friendships between men--not sure whether that says more about the state of literature and culture, or about my taste in books and characters.

Do you have any favorite books that depict friendships in this way?

Date: 2014-04-29 02:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lusimeles.livejournal.com
this is so true, and actually makes me so frustrated. i just want to write about dysfunctional boarding school bitches being soulmates all the times, dammit.

Date: 2014-04-28 11:45 pm (UTC)
pax_athena: (lost in a book)
From: [personal profile] pax_athena
Coherency is another word I would use. Very much a physicists' word, I know! But when I use it in the context of fiction, it actually means, to me, more than just consistency - a fictional world may be consistent, but still not feel coherent, not a whole belonging together, not something bigger than what is explicitly written.

Yes about the characters, very much yes. If they don't feel real (sometimes real people, sometimes, to stay with the more fantastical, gods or whoever the author intends them to be), the book is lost on me. Which is, by the way, not the perfect prerequisite for a science fiction lover that I am, given how much science fiction is idea-driven. But then again, there are writers like LeGuin.

In a way, there are two kinds of books for me: world that I dive into, that I dream and live while reading, books of the heart, to be a bit poetic (Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never let me go" would be an example from the last year; also a lot of my favorite science fiction and fantasy books). And books that I enjoy more intellectually, books that write their own commentary; books tgar actively undermine the believability, as you say it; books where the author suddenly starts talking to me about her or his creation (Borges and Kundera would be the examples that come to mind first here). It's a very crude division and a lot of books manage both or parts of both, but I do find it sometimes a useful one.

Date: 2014-04-30 02:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Le Guin: yes, yes! That is one of the things I love so much about her--no matter what she is writing about, what world, what people, everything in her writing invites belief. In her case, it seems like it has to do with thoroughness. She has imagined her characters and her worlds so thoroughly that of course they have the sort of coherence that you're looking for.

I understand the distinction between the two kinds of books you're making, too. Sometimes I think of it as a difference between books I love and books I admire. Neither is necessarily better than the other; I can even admit that some of the books that feel the most emotional resonance are not as "objectively good" as others that leave me colder. And the best books, of course, are those that fall into both categories, and inflame the head AND the heart. But those are pretty rare...

Date: 2014-04-29 01:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lusimeles.livejournal.com
margaret atwood is so hit-and-miss. i find she's at her worst when she's trying to moralize, i.e. turn her women into archetypes to illustrate a point. have you read death by landscape? (short story.) it is so incredibly good.

Date: 2014-04-30 02:26 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
I have not read "Death By Landscape," but I'll have to check it out. Thanks!

I haven't read a ton of Atwood, but yeah, the turning-women-into-archetypes seemed to be exactly what was going on in The Robber Bride.

Date: 2014-04-30 03:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lusimeles.livejournal.com
she's a very preachy writer sometimes, for sure. i find myself either loving or hating her stuff. i think she's very good when she's trying to deal with the minutia of feeling, and then terribly transparent when she's trying to make a point.

Date: 2014-04-29 05:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mi-er.livejournal.com
Interesting. I gathered from your last entry you weren't loving it :). I did find it believable which is why I liked it obviously. I do think connecting believing the character to the enjoyment of the book is a true one. For me it is all about connecting with and believing the protagonist. I just finished an (admittedly crappy) book where I just did not believe the main character. Getting annoyed by a character does not a bad book make.

And I understand your struggle, there were points in the robber bride where I was on the edge of shouting oh come on! But I know at least two people irl who have similar struggles with letting things go so I guess that tipped the balance for me (and I am talking about the 20 years ago not letting things go kind).

Date: 2014-04-30 02:36 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
And that is yet another element that makes believability so hard to pin down--it's totally subjective as well! What works for you doesn't always work for me, and vice versa! And it's funny too, because I know that it is actually possible for people to get hung on things in the way the characters in the book were, yet somehow the book didn't quite make me feel it... Ah well.

Date: 2014-04-29 08:43 am (UTC)
ext_579428: (city)
From: [identity profile] silviarambles.livejournal.com
I totally agree with you, every single word. I haven't read that book, but I find it's a problem I often have with Margaret Atwood. I read stuff that was absolutely spot on, a bit early on, but I think she went a bit over the top with this whole women and/or dystopian world. On the contrary, the best book I've read recently that I found totally believable despite its magic realism was Of Bees and Mist. I was sucked in, I didn't care about magic and all the other crazy stuff happening in the book - it was real, you could sympathise with the characters, the situations, and the world of the story was presented in a way that was just natural.

Date: 2014-04-30 02:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
I think I remember you posting about Of Bees and Mist--I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

Date: 2014-04-29 09:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wolfiegrin.livejournal.com
Something in your post made me think that, at least for me, is has to do with a consistent logic. Like, for a trio of relatively smart and thoughtful women, who know what happened to each other, it doesn't make sense that they wouldn't move on or at least try. Generally everyone wants to feel loved and appreciated and being dumped for another girl doesn't exactly do that. One might even feel a bit betrayed if the person they were in love with went through the same things with someone (or, in this case, multiple someones) else. If it was one person idealizing the image of a perfect first love, then fine, that happens, but that guy has proved not all that perfect. People fall in love with wrong people and get hurt as a consequence, but for an otherwise emotionally stable and mature person it doesn't make sense to hold on to that image for all that time.
Now that I thought about it, that's what I ended up with. Thanks for' triggering' all that thinking:)
Edited Date: 2014-04-29 09:30 pm (UTC)

Date: 2014-04-30 02:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
I'm always glad to trigger some thinking! :)

And I think you're right--consistent logic is a big part of it.

Date: 2014-04-29 10:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ellettra.livejournal.com
What an interesting question. I guess for me, if I can connect with the main character, believability falls in line. Like you, I would have had a hard time connecting with (and therefore believing) in the scenario you described, of people holding on to something for 20 years. I guess I can believe that, but it sure doesn't resonate with me. And I disagree with another commenter here who said that annoying characters do not a bad book make. I won't read a book if the characters are annoying. I guess that doesn't mean it's BAD, but it does mean I'm not consuming it.

Date: 2014-04-30 02:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] decemberthirty.livejournal.com
Yeah, the annoying character question is an interesting one. I don't necessarily think that characters have to be sympathetic, although if they're not I'm more likely to find the book interesting or admirable or something, rather than really falling in love with it. But there's a difference between characters who are unsympathetic and those that are flat-out annoying. Not much can spoil my enjoyment of a book more than characters who are just plain annoying.

Date: 2014-04-30 11:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] undergroundsea.livejournal.com
Part of the reason I'm almost solely a non-fiction reader is believability. That, and I don't like suspense followed by disappointment or figuring out the denouement well in advance and then having to read to confirm it :)
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