Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Why is it that sometimes things that are not real effect us in very real, visceral ways?

 It is the willing suspension of disbelief, and it gets us every time.  We experience it in all forms of media, particularly in fictional situations, but if we look at it clearly, we might find we suspend our disbelief in situations that we hold to be true, real, and important.  Like politics, for example.    Any political historian will have noticed that as far back as you care to go, there is very little reality between promises made on the campaign trail, and those that are kept.

Still, we willingly suspend disbelief every day.  We do it when we read a novel, or watch TV or go to a movie.  We do it when people we love tell us bald-faced lies, and we do not want to come to grips with the reality of the situation.

The question at hand is this: why do we so easily become emotionally involved with characters on a screen or on a page?  We do not believe—not really—that tragedies portrayed in fiction are real, and yet we have the quickening of the breath, the pounding of the heart.  How can this happen when we know what we are perceiving is not real?

I think it is not so much because we believe it is real, but rather because the situation is a coded representation of anger, sadness, happiness, sorrow and the like.  In visual media the code is embedded in facial expression, tone of voice, a culturally meaningful choice of vocabulary.  In print media it is much more difficult to display… isn’t it?

I know I’ve been well and truly pulled into a book when I find myself arguing with the author, or entreating a character to make a different decision.  Another example is in movies or TV shows when I find myself hating an actor—not because he or she was a bad actor,  rather because they were good enough to elicit that reaction from me. 

I think the bottom line is that we are physically removed from the story, but psychologically involved.   Fiction helps remove us from our “drab” existence, even if to another our existence is anything but drab.  Imagination outstrips reality.  I think our ability to suspend disbelief is directly related to our ability to dream.

Today’s challenge is to look around.  See what makes your breath catch in the world around you.  See what angers, entrances, saddens, or makes you happy.  My guess is you will find you can be much easier made to weep quietly to yourself than to feel good about a character or situation, but that may be an overstatement.

Touch on what touches you.  No writing for this challenge.  For this one, it is all experience.

Your thoughts?


2 responses to “Willing Suspension of Disbelief

  1. Ricky,

    I think making promises is a real touchy matter. We don’t know what is going to happen in the future for sure. The one or ones who promise too quickly will have a high probability of failing to their promises and the ones they promised.
    Plans are better than promises. There are goals and intentions and the risk of not achieving those goals is considered, but the best efforts will be put to achieving those goals.

  2. After thinking this over, I feel that a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ would be a good posture to have, not only with respect to reading the novels that capture our imagination, but to people we meet in life generally. After all, what is belief but that set attitude we have developed from and through our experience. It basically, as belief, as little to do with the other person, or with the story that we are reading. The question is: are we going to take this for ‘real’ – are we going to allow this ‘presentation’ to have an affect/effect on us. Suspension of disbelief sounds to me a bit like the old fashioned stance of ‘having faith’. I could go on, but will cut the ‘philosophy’ short. Especially when, at any time in the plot of the story or live, – after we have learned and accumulated evidence – we can make a sounder judgment than the kind’ of insanity that may be inferred as resulting from too extreme a ‘suspension of disbelief’.

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