Suspension of Disbelief in Fantasy

Fantasy is a curious genre of book in that, by definition a suspension of our disbelief is required.  After all, whether it be dragons, or powerful magic; whether the story includes the 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 fantasy–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 my suspension of disbelief only goes so far. I expect the characters I’m reading about to be in mortal danger. A sword through the heart will still kill him/her. So my willingness to go along with the fantastical has its limits. Within the parameters of the world that has been built, I expect normality to rule, and if I read something that seems contrary to that invented normality, then a part of me will rebel against what I’m reading; my satisfaction levels with the story will fall.

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

  1. Language. So main boy/girl suddenly ends up in strange world and, hey, everyone speaks a form of modern English. Wow, what  coincidence! OK, 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.
  2. Food. 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.
  3. Animals. 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.
  4. Hygiene. 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 for a comfort break?’  Furthermore, again with portal fantasies, our protagonist would likely have a major issue with things like 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 writing, 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 fantasy.

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

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