What Makes a Novel Credible?
The stranger on the Appalachian Trail was as dirty and unkempt as most serious hikers, the ones who hadn’t just come out for an afternoon. He looked as though he hadn’t shaved in a month. He was wearing faded blue jeans and a University of West Virginia sweatshirt.
The author lost me right there. I grew up on and around the West Virginia University campus. The Mountaineers played and studied at WVU, never UWV. Never mind that the guy on the trail was a minor character, his sweatshirt of no significance except to make his image more vivid. An author who mistakes West Virginia University for the University of West Virginia is not one I can trust.
What does it mean for fiction to be credible, when it’s untrue by definition? Willing suspension of disbelief takes collaboration between reader and author. The reader consents to think of fictional people, places, and things as real, to care what becomes of folks who don’t even exist, to accept the presence of a street or town that’s not on any map outside the book’s covers. The author avoids jarring that suspension out of place with stilted dialogue, glaring anachronisms, or behaviors that feel unnatural in the context of the story.
Had the University of West Virginia been a major setting of the novel, located not in Morgantown but in a fictional canyon beset by mayhem unrelated to any real school, I might have kept my disbelief suspended. It was the very insignificance of the name on the sweatshirt that made it come across as carelessness rather than intention. If the author can’t even get that right, why should I go along with anything else?
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.