Someone who read Finding Claire Fletcher once told me that it was simply not believable that my protagonist would not leave her abductor given the first opportunity, even after years of abuse and failed escape attempts resulting in some pretty hefty consequences. Never mind that it is widely reported that real-life abduction victims like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard did not escape in spite of multiple opportunities to do so. I'm not going to get into the psychology behind that--if you can't understand the kind of fear underlying their decisions not to make a break for it, then you must be having a really nice life. Why do soldiers have a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after spending a year in a war zone? Hmmm . . . Why do battered women keep going back? Hmmm . . . There's a lot going on there and I don't think it's fair to victims of violent crimes--especially when those victims are children--to say "Oh she should have done this or that." At any rate, I tried to explore answers to the question "why don't they just leave?" in my novel. Did I pull it off? Well I guess we'll find out if it ever gets published. But the issue of leaving v. not leaving a bad situation is one for another day. Today what I really want to talk about is believability. Writers, agents, editors, readers all clamor about how things in novels MUST be believable. Okay, sure, but try putting something in your book that actually happens in real life and you'll be told it's not believable!
Although in my experience, truth is often stranger than fiction as the saying goes. I've seen and experienced things that I wouldn't find believable if I had read about them in a novel. Several years back my family and I found ourselves mired in some bizarre and tragic circumstances. I'll never forget one day my uncle said to me, "If I wasn't living it, I wouldn't believe it." That summed things up perfectly. Going back to Jaycee Dugard, is it really believable that parole officers visited her abductor's home over 60 times and never discovered her? That one of these parole officers actually spoke to her, saw her small children and didn't ask any questions? Well it sure as hell doesn't sound believable but it happened. Although it is fact, if you tried putting that into a novel, I don't think it would go over well with readers. I doubt it would ever get past agents or editors.
Still, people love to read fiction. For me, when I pick up a novel, I expect there to be some degree of unbelievability. I mean really. Why else would I want to read it? I want to be entertained. I expect that the author will take liberties and test the limits of believability just a little to make the novel entertaining. I read things all the time that I don't really find believable but it doesn't bother me because I'm reading a novel, not a memoir. When I purchase a novel, after reading the product description and possibly some reviews, I make an agreement with the author that basically says "I am going to go on this journey with you, through this story that came from your imagination and I'm going to trust you to guide me through it. I'm not going to give you a hard time. I'm going to sit back, relax and let you do most of the work. I understand you may tweak certain elements for the sake of moving the story forward and I'm okay with that."
So where is the line between believable and not believable? I mean we are writing fiction, after all. What happened to that whole thing about "the willing suspension of disbelief"?What do you think--as a reader and as a writer?