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Monday, September 01, 2008


Plausibility and fantasy

Here's a theory: certain improbable scenarios only support a certain amount of naturalism. And it depends very much on the scenario you pick.

I was reflecting on this the other day as we returned home from the latest Batman movie. It turns out that some people are devoted to Batman, and there's a vast amount of stuff about there about him, mostly comic books; I'd grown up familiar with nothing more than 'na-na-na-na na-na-na-na BATMAN!' somewhere in the back of my mind, but it would seem that there's more to it than that, as witness the increased attempts at seriousness and naturalism in the recent movies.

Now, I like Christopher Nolan's films, and I enjoyed the Tim Burton Batman movies - but the combination of Nolan and Batman really didn't work for me. I suspect that saying this on the Internet is tantamount to singing 'God Save the Queen' in the middle of a Fourth of July celebration, but there it was. Burton's Grand Guignol was fun, and it felt suitable for the subject matter: I was, after all, watching a movie about a man who, for reasons best known to himself, had decided to fight crime wearing the world's strangest hat. An enthusiastically overblown atmosphere worked well for that. In such a bravura world, heck, why not dress up as a bat to fight crime? You'd hardly be more eccentric than anybody else. Nolan's more naturalistic style weirded me out; it called to my attention that, amongst all these rather normal-looking people, there was a man who had decided that the world's strangest hat was an essential component in law enforcement ... and that created a tremendous dissonance in my mind. What on earth was he doing with that hat? Why did nobody blink? Heath Ledger's Joker feeling unable to commit criminal mayhem without extravagant make-up I could just about accept; you'd think you could plant bombs and yell at people without the slap if you really tried, but it didn't strain credibility too far. For one thing, he was supposed to be snooker loopy in a theatrical, performative way: some people enjoy weirding other people out, and he appeared to be one of those, hence it wasn't impossible that such a person would consider a scary white face a useful tool for intimidation. There was a degree of real-world precedent; after all, some people do put on extravagant war paint. It's usually in cultures where everyone does it, but it's a recognisable human behaviour, so the clown-face didn't clang too hard against the naturalism. But, but, but ... nobody dresses up as a bat to fight crime. What were they doing, trying to make such an unrealistic premise look realistic?

But as I heard myself ask that, I realised I sounded utterly inconsistent. I mean, I wrote a book about werewolves that aimed for naturalistic writing. I'd just finished another one about mermaids, and that was trying to be realistic too. Was I a big huge hypocrite, or did I need to reconsider?

So I reconsidered, and in so doing, clarified something in my mind. Because - and this is the general point - there are different kinds of realism. There's physical realism, and there's psychological realism, and they're two separate things.

If you change something physical, then you're more or less pulling off a magic trick. You can rationalise it with science (we've discovered that if you boil protons in strong enough tea, you can make time flow backwards!), you can present it as magic (a woman with spooky powers turned me into a frog!), or you can simply fait accompli your audience (there are zombies in this book because I say so, deal with it or go read something else).

But the thing is, you haven't changed anything essential about people in your world. People are people wherever you go. Shona villagers almost certainly gossip as much as New York bankers; retired French plasterers probably lament about their old bones about as much as retired Indian sitar-makers; Chinese farmers and British industrialists are equally likely to consider their own children better than everyone else's. And if a change in culture, location, socio-economic status or traditions has a limited effect on such things, it's reasonable to assume that they wouldn't be affected by the existence of space stations or witchcraft. They might change people's living conditions, but how people react to those changes would still be pretty human. You have a story about people living in unusual circumstances, but once the initial improbability hurdle is gotten over - and the characters' reactions to their circumstances can help a lot with that - you can be as realistic as you like.

On the other hand, there's the issue of psychological realism - and here we get into different territory. The Batman example is a case in point: people do not, on the whole, react to childhood trauma or law and order difficulties by dressing up as an animal and running around getting into fights. It is a psychologically implausible thing to do. Neither to people generally react to such behaviour by taking it seriously. The Isle of Skye is home to Tom Leppard, for instance, who tattooed himself and fixed his teeth to look like a leopard, but if you watch this YouTube clip of him, you can see that he gets scant respect from strangers; the narrator is more or less openly laughing at him, as are the commenters. His neighbours regard him as a nice guy with some kooky ways, it seems - there's a tradition of great British eccentrics that he fits comfortably into - but he's clearly a shy and uncommon man, doing his own thing in a way that takes him out of society rather than makes him responsible for maintaining it. It's understood by everyone that, while he's welcome to live that way if he pleases, it is a strange choice of lifestyle, and most of the kneejerk reactions you'll see on that piece are some variant of 'What a weirdo'. Those comments are not polite or respectful - it's his own business, after all, and he seems like a perfectly nice man - but that's kind of the point: if you get yourself up as an animal, it does not generally garner respect. If Tom Leppard decided it was time for him to fight crime, especially violently, a lot of people would be extremely uncomfortable. Leppard seems peaceful and charming, but the idea of a man whose relationship to society is so disconnected deciding to arm himself is not a soothing one.

Now, there's no reason not to tell a story that involves some suspension of disbelief about how people behave. Punch and Judy is hardly an in-depth study of behaviour: hangmen very seldom put their heads in the noose to show you how it's done. But it helps a lot that Punch and Judy is performed by squeaky-voiced puppets. They're clearly not real people, so it hardly matters if they don't act like real people; it would be a little unsettling if they did. Caricatured behaviour and caricatured people go together in Punch and Judy, and the result feels comfortably consistent.

If, on the other hand, something in your story demands a degree of suspended disbelief about human behaviour, it throws everything off if you try to make people behave realistically except for that one thing. If they're realistic people, then why aren't they reacting realistically to the one thing; for that matter, why is somebody doing that one thing at all?

It's a question to consider when setting up a scenario of your own. I suspect the main reason why it flew in the recent Batman movies is familiarity: people are sufficiently used to the idea of Batman that it no longer startles the audience. That makes it easier to overlook the fact that none of the characters seem the least bit startled either. But if you're creating your own scenario, you don't have that padding: your audience has not been primed to accept implausibilities. Consequently, any disharmony between the implausibility of the set-up and the characters will stand out sharply.

So, how to balance? If anything, there may be an opposite pull in the two scenarios. If your situation involves some physical implausibilities, having the characters react to them realistically may actually help the audience accept them: one imaginary thing greeted as if it were real, either with the 'But there are no witches, not really,' response of a real person encountering such a thing for the first time, or with the matter-of-factness that people generally display towards the familiar, seems integrated into a 'real' world. If, on the other hand, you have something psychologically implausible, what you need to present is a world in which everyone's psychology is strange enough or simple enough that an improbable piece of behaviour wouldn't seem out of kilter.

A lot of this has to do with imagining the background world. The scenario of Se7en, for instance, is psychologically rather unlikely. People seldom do plan out five murders and a suicide in order to make some kind of religious point; preachers, even extreme ones, are generally less decoratively gruesome in making their points, and serial killers generally kill people because they profit from it or get off on it, and consquently tend not to plan a grand finale after which they'll stop. But the film goes to some trouble to establish so dystopic a background setting - semi-realistic, but drawn in broad, expressionistic strokes - that the killer's motivations seem acceptable, fictionally speaking: he's only acting on opinions that everybody in the movie holds to a greater or lesser degree. His actions are Gothic, but he lives in a Gothic world; it holds together.

If you're creating your own world from scratch, rather than adapting a character you didn't create, harmony of tone seems more likely. You will, after all, be creating both the scenario and the characters; coming from the same mind, they're more likely to mesh. But as a general point to consider, where you need to put the plausibility in your story, what degree of realism and unrealism you can get away with, is worth considering when you're working it out.

I think a lot depends on the preconceptions of the audience, as you mentioned with Batman. Readers who regularly read sci-fi, for example, aren't going to blink when a character travels through time or blasts off to Mars for his holidays. A reader who's never picked up sci-fi before will take more time to orientate themselves in the universe presented.
I think you've managed to put your finger on why I'm so disappointed by the works of Chuck Palahniuk.
Lovely thoughts here.

And I just finished Benighted and found it very powerfully written. I'm not sure I loved it; Lola's suffering so much throughout the story it was sometimes difficult to keep going with her through the pain. But I did love the writing.
You should read the Left Behind books! :)
To some extent it's a matter of convention: Characters in super-hero stories usually dress up in costume to fight crime, just like series detectives keep stumbling over corpses. If you like the genre, the conventions are a feature, if you don't, they're a bug.

I wasn't that thrilled with the first Burton film and I thought the second was utter crap (I've rewatched it at the insistence of friends, and Christopher Walken's plan makes no sense whatsoever), despite the insistence of a lot of people (including several fans) that those are both the Definitive Batman.

Characters in super-hero stories usually dress up in costume to fight crime, just like series detectives keep stumbling over corpses.

But that's the point: to sustain such conventions, you have to calibrate your psychological plausibility to an appropriate point.

Detectives running into murders whenever they go on holiday is, I'd say, on the physically improbable side of the spectrum - it doesn't require magic powers, but it bends the powers of coincidence to varying degrees. The degrees of coincidence and naturalism tend to interrelate; Agatha Christie, whose detectives just happen to run into a lot of murders, draws her characters in broad, simple strokes that don't demand a lot of realism, whereas P.D. James, whose aims are more literary and whose style is more psychologically analytical, tends to present characters as running into murders only when they've been hired by virtue of their police or detective skills to work in situations where a murder is likely to happen in the first place, which makes them more probable.

In crime novels, in short, you have a potentially improbable situation, but there's a degree of flexibility in how you justify it. If you want naturalistic writing, you put the detective in a situation where it's more likely that they'll encounter more murders than most people - you make them a police officer or a crime scene investigator, whose job puts them in the way of such things. If you mind less about such probability, chances are you'll be painting psychology with a broader brush.

Detective stories have an added feature, in that the break up the improbability from book to book. It's a little improbable, but not impossible, that a detective off duty might run into a murder once in his or her life. It's highly improbable that they'll do it fifty times - but that's a cumulative improbability spread out over fifty books. With each book, you only have to accept a small degree of unlikelihood. The writer hides the improbabilty by spreading it around With Agatha Christie it's a kind of sleight-of-hand - and that's entirely in keeping with her kind of story: her murders are generally performed and concealed by, effectively, stage magic. The switch that happens earlier than you think is one of her staples, and the staple of a stage magician as well; she relies on devices such as recordings that give the illusion somebody was there when they weren't, quick changes, fake blood and so on. All of them are basic stage magic, using the same kind of misdirection she uses to hide the improbability. It's not realistic, but it's internally consistent: the device the author uses to hide the improbability chimes with the devices the murderers use to hide their crimes.

If someone dresses as a bat to fight crime, though, the full payload of improbability is there in every single story you tell; it doesn't get any more or less likely with each new story. To remain consistent, the author has to accept a big, unhideable unlikelihood as part of the package and work to be consistent with that.

The convention of needing costumes to fight crime, in short, is never going to be very plausible - you can't justify it by giving the characters a job that puts them in the way of it or reduce its effects by having them wear the hat in one episode and the boots in another - so you have a narrower range of naturalism options unless you're Alan Moore and have decided to deconstruct the idea and suggest that the costumes have more to do with fantasy and fetish than with law enforcement. You can write such stories, but there's a point of psychological realism beyond which you start to strain credulity.

Every genre has conventions, and every writer has to judge how much naturalism those conventions allow him or her to get away with. The fact that they're a convention doesn't mean you don't have to consider how they'll play in the plausibility stakes. The issue isn't probability, it's the internal consistency between how probable a scenario is and how real-seeming you want to be.
Kit, you might get a kick out of James Robinson's Starman series. The protagonist, son of the original Golden Age Starman, inherits the mantle of his city's traditional protector, but can't bring himself to wear the costume. This is mainly due to the fact that the Golden Age Starman's getup makes Batman's suit look like Brooks Brothers tweed: A red, yellow and green monstrosity with a fin on the cowl. Instead, he opts for a leather jacket with a star badge, a pair of goggles, and normal street clothing. It's a quirky, fun series.

And my other thought on superhero costumes: The whole "men in tights" thing was started because they were easier for the artists to draw, and they kind of just stuck from there on in. I figure that if you walk down the streets in tights and a cape, people will stop laughing once you pick up a car or two.
The convention of needing costumes to fight crime, in short, is never going to be very plausible

If you want realism, then you have to say that needing vigilantes to fight crime is never going to be plausible.

Pretty much all superheroes act above the law. The law only gets in their way. Separation of powers get in their way. They need to be judge, jury, and executioner. They need to be able to spy on anyone at any time. They need to torture people to get information. They need to operate above the law.

Obviously, different superheroes operate at different points on the spectrum. Superman doesn't torture, but Wonderwoman uses a rope that forces you to tell the truth (no pleading the fifth), and Batman will drop you from a 10 story building and stop the cable with your face a foot above the ground (fake executions) to get you to tell him what he wants to know.

Dressing up in spandex, or balistic armor, shaped like a bat is the least if the unrealistic issues with Batman.

I thihk part of the reason the latest rounds of Batman have tried to pose themselves as realistic is because more and more people are seeing the real world as needing individuals with unchecked power operating above the law to fight the bad guys, whoever they might be. Jack Bauer and "24" wouldn't have been possible in a pre-9/11 world, or would have been far less popular at least. But now, lots of people think we need Jack Bauer types if we want to effectively fight terrorism. Yet, reality says the most effective tool is good intelligence gathering and standard police investigative work.

But that doesn't make an iteresting movie, and it certainly doesn't jive with how a lot of people view the world as a place needing paramilitary units operating outside the law, outside the Geneva Convention, and outside any checks and balances on their exercise of power.

Which means that vigilantes aren't realistic in any way as far as being an effective tool for fighting bad guys, yet, a large portion of the audience believes the world really operates that way.
... and those people scare me just as much as the terrorists.

That's a very interesting point, and I think explains another reason why I didn't like the movie, or indeed, 24 or much of its ilk. The law isn't the law unless it applies to everyone; torture is either good or bad regardless of who's doing it; if you're the good guy, you can't act like the bad guy. It's very dangerous to think otherwise - because pretty much everyone who does terrible things considers themselves the exception to the rule. By that logic, the only real difference between a vigilante and a villian is that the former's more self-righteous.

I wonder if that's one reason why it's convenient to use costumed superheroes? If someone's wearing a costume that has such heavy associations with virtue, then in effect he's wearing a big sandwich board saying 'I'M THE GOOD GUY'. So when he does something evil, hopefully the audience is looking at the virtue-signifying costume rather than the evil action, and feels more inclined to endorse his actions. If an ordinary-looking fella did it to other ordinary-looking fellas, people might start to lose that warm fuzzy feeling.
Hi Kit. I found my way here from a comment you left over at Slacktivist.

I think you're spot on, and I also think that explains for me why I tend to dislike action movies in general -- they so often exist in an alternate psychological reality that I find unappealing.

Thanks for the post.
I so want to put forth a cogent response to this, but it seems that I'm not up to the task.
Instead I will say that your points and the questions you raise are interesting, and they go a long way towards explaining why Kit isn't interested in super-heroes, but...well, that's where I'm running into the wall in trying to respond. What is the "but?"
I think the promelme I'm having is that you seem to be headed towards "this is why Kit isn't interested in super-heroes and why you shouldn't be, either," which, based on what I've learned of your personal character seems completely unlikely, so I find myself a bit confused.
And so, here I am, stuck trying to articulate something that I can't quite wrap my mind around.
I will say, though, that I think Fraser hit the nail on the head with the bug/feature comment.

(Oh, and this is "Jon," by the way)
*Sigh* Another "promelme" I'm having is not being able to type the word "problem," for some reason...
you seem to be headed towards "this is why Kit isn't interested in super-heroes and why you shouldn't be, either," All I can ever express is my own opinion. I'm making an argument for it, which what you do when you're expressing an opinion. If it comes across as an argument for what other people should think, that's simply because I'm putting it in the form of a proposition supported with examples, which might or might not convince the reader. That's what essays are: 'This is what I think and this is why I think it.' They either convince people or they don't.

But I think you're making two mistakes here:

1. You're interpreting the post as saying 'superheroes are bad', when I've explicitly said I enjoyed certain superhero films.

2. You seem to feel that attacking superheroes is the point of this post, whereas they are simply an illustrative example in a general point about style versus naturalism. And not the only example; you haven't accused me of attacking Punch and Judy or Se7en, presumably because they matter less to you, but it's the general point that's my main concern.

I'm just one person: this is what I think. If it convinces you, fine; if you don't like it, that's your right. But stating my opinion is not tantamount to trying to deprive other people of theirs.
Jon/Heimdall again: I find that my fiance rather sympathises with you!

I was talking over this discussion with him, and he said he could see where you were coming from, because sometimes he hesitates to discuss things with me that he likes and I don't, for fear that I'll argue him into questioning his own tastes. He cited a mutual friend who actually asked me to stop telling her what I thought about a TV show because she was enjoying it but if I pointed out its faults, she wouldn't be able to stop seeing them. (Unfortunately for her, the things I'd already said went home and now she's gone off it.)

This isn't me deliberately trying to be combative or controlling: I simply say what I think in a fairly forthright way. What can I say? I'm a lawyer's daughter; throwing arguments around hard and fast was my dad's and my dinnertime game. It's the style I was raised in.

Not to presume I know what's in your mind, but it's possible you feel I'm being unusually forceful here because I'm touching on a subject that matters a lot to you; I know I'm more sensitive to arguments when I care a lot about the subject. But I'm certainly not trying to spoil your fun. If you enjoy those stories, I'm happy for you.

So if I seem to be arguing everyone should see things my way - well, I see things the way I see things, and I'll talk people round to agreeing with me if I can. But my fiance, at least, is on your side. :-)
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