Suspending a Character’s Disbelief and Ours

I’ve got book winners to announce, but that will be at the end of this post. Mwahahahaha! So grab a donut and pour yourself a cup of coffee or tea while I talk at you for a minute.

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Ever read a book where a character is handed a truth that would require a major paradigm shift for him or her to accept? For example, the character suddenly learns that magic or monsters really exist.

We’ve all read stories of characters who stubbornly cling to disbelief in the face of tons of evidence to the contrary. They insist that they’re dreaming or “this isn’t really happening” until they reach a plot point (at least halfway through the book) that pushes them toward belief. Or we’ve read stories where a character instantly accepts a completely world-changing viewpoint without a struggle. There are also stories where the character seems to ignore what would be totally obvious to a seven-year-old. I think of that as the Lois-Lane-can’t-see-Superman-behind-Clark-Kent’s-glasses perspective. That’s why we don’t necessarily suspend our disbelief as we read. (Or sometimes we go along for the ride because the characters are so beloved or iconic.)

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Lois, have you noticed anything unusual about Clark? No? Some reporter you are.

Here is where foreshadowing can be an author’s BFF. An author can hint at the possibility that something major is going to happen at a future point. Foreshadowing also is a reminder that things are not always what they appear to be. It provides a solid base to make a character’s suspension of disbelief seem inevitable.

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Prince Zuko of the Avatar animated series and Anakin Skywalker of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Sometimes though, a rip-off-the-bandage approach works to move a story along. I can’t help thinking of two episodes of Doctor Who, series 4 (2008), starring David Tennant as the Doctor (BBC/BBC America).

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In Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, an extremely chilling 2009 Hugo award-nominated two-episode arc written by Steven Moffat, we see a little girl talking to a psychiatrist, while her anxious dad hovers in the background. Such an innocuous scene. The little girl has told the doctor—Dr. Moon—about her dreams.

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Doctor Moon (played by Colin Salmon) and the little girl (played by Eve Newton)

In her dreams, she goes to a library—a place where she feels safe. But as we watch the episodes, we realize that all is not what it seems. Later in the first episode, because of a dangerous development, Doctor Moon has to share a shocking truth with the little girl, a truth that would require a paradigm shift for her to accept. (Quote below from IMDb. **SLIGHT SPOILER.**)

Dr. Moon: What I want you to remember is this, and I know it’s hard. The real world is a lie and your nightmares are real. The Library is real. There are people trapped in there. People who need to be saved. The shadows are moving again. Those people are depending on you. Only you can save them. Only you.

**END SPOILER.** You can read this Wikipedia article if you want to know the plot. Or, I would suggest watching the episodes. They are extremely good.

Another example of a character having to shift from disbelief to belief comes from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone/Philosopher’s Stone (the title depends on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be on), Hagrid tells Harry the truth about Harry’s extraordinary life in this scene from the first Harry Potter movie, directed by Christopher Columbus (2001).

Rowling set the stage earlier by having weird things happen that Harry witnessed, but couldn’t explain. So when the big reveal comes, his struggle for acceptance doesn’t feel contrived.

I’m facing a similar issue in my middle grade book—a character struggling to believe something extraordinary about herself. I’ll ask you the same questions I had to answer for the character: If you were told that magic really exists, what’s the first thing you would do? What would you say or ask?

While you think about those questions, I’ll move on to the book giveaway. Thanks for you patience. If you recall, last week I had mentioned two great books: None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio and Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue by Charles Yallowitz. You can find those posts here and here. Jordie and Hello Kitty wanted to be in on the reveal. You might have to enlarge the photos below if you have trouble reading the names.

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The winner of None of the Above is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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The winner of Sleeper of the Wildwood Fugue is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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Congratulations Jill! Congrats, Professor! Please comment below to confirm.

Now I will leave you with a photo I am calling, “The Five Geese of the Apocalypse.” For some reason, they were just standing there on the ledge looking out. Surveying their domain perhaps?

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Doctor Moon and the little girl from stevegoble.blogspot.com. Doctor Who, series 4, DVD cover from Wikipedia. Lois Lane and Clark Kent from goodgirlsinc.wordpress.com. Coffee and donut from wisdomwoman.com. Zuko from glogster.com. Anakin/Darth Vader from tvtropes.org.