Willing suspension of disbelief: Why fiction feels real

Picture of By Álvaro G. Arrieta

By Álvaro G. Arrieta

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]I[/mks_dropcap] have a pathological need for fantasy. The ever-wise Guillermo del Toro put it this way: “real life is most boring and has a very bad narrative. You find love, hate, indifference in unexpected places, so one has to know how to look in order to find. […] If you are able to see, you can tell. We’re like magpies that pick images and take them to our nest”. In fiction, unlike reality, there are no limits to what you can do or aspire to be. However, how is it possible for us to feel part of a narrative we consciously know is unreal?

The longing for freedom and the extraordinary might be more or less intense in each of us, but what remains is that we all experience what is called a “willing suspension of disbelief” at some point or other when exposed to fictional narratives. Surely you’ll know dragons don’t exist, and yet when you’re watching them you can’t look away for your life. That’s you willingly suspending your critical capacities and believing the surreal to comfortably enjoy your time in the realm of fantasy.

Take me to the fantastic place
But where does this concept come from? In the early 19th century, the English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge – perhaps better known as the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, surely familiar to Iron Maiden fans – was the first to use “willing suspension of disbelief,” when detailing how a writer can make the reader forget the improbability of the story by imbuing their stories with human character and a resemblance of reality. Additionally, two other ways to achieve this effect are: using the audience’s ignorance to the writer’s advantage – i.e. if they don’t know our claim is untrue, chances are they won’t resist -, and bypassing reason and aiming for emotion.

Keep the rest of my life away
Other studies, like this, have delved deeper into the effects of fiction in a person’s perception of reality or a specific issue, and there is some consensus on its ability to guide or even alter how viewers perceive the topic they might be watching, what is referred to as “narrative persuasion.” This happens with the help of several ingredients.

The first one, the Transportation-Imagery Model explains the effects of narrative transportation. The second, the Extended Elaboration Likelihood Model (E-ELM), in turn deals with the supplementary idea of involvement, or identification. In other words, and as explained here, involvement in the narrative and involvement with the characters “are processes that limit counterarguing or make it incompatible, thus reducing individuals’ resistance and favoring their acceptance of the message contained in the narrative.”

So, this “willing suspension of disbelief” and the effects of narrative persuasion could, after all, have a very simple explanation: absorption and identification (with characters). Establishing a personal connection with the story and with its elements aids the brewing and acceptance of new ideas, while challenging pre-existing beliefs, and it’s all due to the inability to critically think during the reception process.

The moment outside of real life
This is very magical and all, yet there are some other, darker uses for this phenomenon. Obviously, the shutting off of your cognitive capacities for critical thinking has the perks stated above, but it also leaves you in a state permeable to foreign influence that is not subject to the critical analysis you would normally carry out.

This is, say you are watching 1995’s Braveheart. The film starts and, as you progressively identify with the characters and their quest, the mechanisms described above kick in, making your threshold for influence much lower, having you believe what you have been presented with is true and accurate – if you have no knowledge on the history of Scotland and England, that is.

It makes the unacceptable acceptable for a moment

While this is arguably inoffensive, take the example of fiction inspired by or closely resembling reality, the narration of what could be factual accounts. Like House of Cards. Arguably, Frank and Claire Underwood are characters you connect with at some level, and possibly root for, even though their behaviour is pretty much always unethical, illegal and manifestly bad praxis. Seeing them plotting and scheming, witnessing how much worse they become is deeply political. It makes the unacceptable acceptable for a moment, and turns the very wrong into something that is thrilling, appealing and apparently innocuous.

Therefore, think twice when you feel there is nothing political about a film or a series, for you could be unconsciously being exposed to content completely embedded in ideology – regardless of truth.


Cover: Unsplash/rawpixel


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