Monday, November 22, 2010

The importance of believability.

It's not a universal opinion that "realism" = "better". How can the imagination become involved if everything is real? How can new concepts be explored if we are anchored to the old? These are valid concerns, especially when it comes to fiction (which is necessarily "unrealistic", at least in a few senses such as specific details). However, I would say that "reality" serves as the foundation for every series, no matter how apparently-unrealistic it is. This manifests in a few different ways.

1: Immersing the audience in the story. (SENSES)

One of the primary obstacles that media has to overcome is its inherent nature as a sense-limited medium. Media can depict two senses in an incomplete manner (sight and sound) and has no way to connect to the other three senses (smell, touch, taste). Of course, the characters in the story are generally depicted as possessing all five senses. To fully "immerse" the audience, the product must attempt to bridge this gap by using things like effects and character reactions to depict the "full" conditions.

The effects of this can be seen by the way that things like games and movies are described. More immersive material will have descriptions like "bone-crunching" or "nauseating", while less immersive fare feels "floaty" or "weightless". Fight scenes attempt to create a sense of actual damage and consequences, and a scene that's clearly faked, with no hits connecting, may suffer as a result. This also applies to things like props or object design: if an object feels tangible, like something that could conceivably be real, it will make a stronger impression on the audience.

This is not to say that fantastic elements can't be included, but there are some baseline assumptions that audiences make about a movie. Humans behave like humans, and are affected in ways humans are. If you cut them, they bleed. If you blow them up, they're full of guts and organs and don't come apart like a cartoon character. Even a fantasy series can benefit from this "grounded" design: it's easier to imagine damage from a sword or mace if you connect it to more plausible or relatable damage, like being cut by a knife or hit by a rock.

The goal of this point is twofold: to connect the character to the audience by sharing their experience, and to connect the audience to the world by showing them what it would be like to be in such a situation. There are many ways this can manifest, but all of them should revolve around overcoming the barriers between "real" senses and "depictable" senses.

2: Making the story internally consistent. (LOGIC)

In commentary for Aliens, James Cameron remarked that the movie works in large part because everyone takes it seriously, and thus it convinces the viewer that these characters are concerned about their lives in a very serious way. This is what internal consistency should support. In actuality, none of this is "real", but the trick is drawing in the viewer so that it seems like it is - and it should be real, at least to the characters.

Generally, making a fictional story requires a veneer of "real", even if it's not in the sense of matching our reality. That is to say, the story must be real to the characters. One of the problems with plotholes and other issues of logic is that it damages this glamour. We are meant to believe that these characters are doing something important to them, even to the point of being life or death. When characters make inexplicably bad decisions to create tension, it makes the story feel more fake overall, and generally leaves fans scrambling to find or create an explanation for it. While a delayed reaction may not be so bad ("Hey, that didn't make sense"), more obvious plot holes will immediately pull the audience out of the action.

Magic, in particular, is a thorny obstacle in the way of internal consistency. The Harry Potter series has many examples of objects that create plot holes, most famously the Time-Turner. This was an object that allowed for time travel, but was only used for one plot-related activity. It was primarily relegated to the simplistic purpose of allowing a student to take more classes than normal. The reason for this under-usage is never explored, and in light of it the entire story is diminished. All the drama and tension could have been for nothing if they remembered to use the obvious magical artifact that can solve everything.

It can therefore be said that the most important part of this point is making a world believable, and overcoming the natural barrier between "this is fiction" and "this is a story that I am invested in". Like any other design decision, it can make the difference between a sensible story and a story that can't be taken seriously (not that this stops people who are fans of Harry Potter or any other plot-hole-possessing series, of course).

3: Making the story relevant to reality. (MORALS)

This is, in my opinion, probably the least important aspect of the concept of believability. However, I mention it because of how often movies, shows and games try to have a "message" that pertains to real life regardless of how unrealistic the media itself is. The basic idea when dealing with morals or lessons applied to real life is this: every change you make to necessitate the moral is one step away from the moral actually being applicable. In some cases, this is more obvious than others - extreme cases that use ridiculous or fantastic logic to justify a change in real behavior. However, many "morals" are just as nonsensical underneath, yet appear normal on the surface. I have several examples of "lessons" that fall short due to varying factors.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Attempts social commentary on current events. Fails due to a lack of understanding regarding everything from sociology to economics to technology. Most unfortunately, the relative lack of context means that many players feel that it's "accurate" or "enlightening" despite its myriad liberties with plausible material
Chrono Cross: Attempts a green aesop about humans destroying the environment despite the fact that it takes place on a completely different world where humans live in small villages and the world is largely verdant and green. In short, an attempt to comment on reality that makes no sense in-universe.
1984: Shows the horror of a totalitarian world by using implausible/impossible technology and control. Exaggerates the level of control possessed by a totalitarian regime in some ways that could have easily been depicted accurately and been just as horrifying (secret police, curfews, etcetera)
X-Men: Attempts to connect "mutants" with "homosexuals" - as in, they are unfairly persecuted, "coming out" to parents is difficult and divisive, etcetera. The difference is that mutants possess dangerous powers that could endanger the lives of other people, and homosexuals do not.

The value of a lesson relies on its plausibility. There are many examples of stories that attempt to carry a lesson that are derided for their unlikeliness and obviously impossible natures, such as the Chick Tracts promoted by Jack Chick that claim that various activities and lifestyles lead to pacts with Satan and so on. The reason these "lessons" don't work is because they don't make sense. Therefore, if such things should be held to that standard, then all media that attempts to comment on real life should be treated the same.


These three examples do not just apply to "totally realistic" products. They add a distinct layer to all forms of media, and provide universal, objective connections to the audience. This blog does not exist to debate the finer mechanics of "why" realism is good in and of itself; rather, it is the goal to explore how realism and believability can make a piece of work more credible and immersive.


  1. I just wanted to thank you for this blog. not only did i begin to believe that i was the last person on earth who seemed to even think about these things, but i had kicked around the idea of starting my own blog on the very topic.

    where i have just started to pick at the surface of everything written here, i agree with everything i have read so far. now if only i can get my art directors to agree. ;)

    thank you so much,
    dana -

  2. I'm writing a story and I've been brought to your blog a couple of times. You cover really interesting topics and I'm looking forward toread your other posts. Cheers!

  3. I have just discovered you blog and I have to say your articles are stellar. Gives me a lot of food for thought, now I'll have to be more careful when conceiving my story.

  4. "...not that this stops people who are fans of Harry Potter or any other plot-hole-possessing series, of course"

    As someone who is ambivalently neutral towards Harry Potter as series, however, I think this is the weak point behind your entire argument and which ultimately restricts the generalizations derived from the same.

    1) There is no such thing as an absolute, universal level of believability, which will guarantee that everyone will take something seriously or not.

    2) Different parts of a given fictional work can be separely classified and dissected or digested on their own.

    You might consider the existence of a single plot hole to destroy your ability to take an entire work, but why should that be so? In practice, that will not automatically cause the same impact on everyone else.

    There are those who will not notice or just ignore such plot holes because the rest of the story and its characters are still quite interesting and engaging. There are those who will openly excuse them as either minor of forgivable. And there are those who can logically demonstrate that they weren't even plot holes in the first place, through the use of alternate reasoning and evidence.

    3) Lessons can only ever be optionally derived, whether it's from both optimal works or imperfect ones. There are those who will gain nothing out of a work that changed your entire moral outlook, and those who will find lessons from productions that you consider to be vastly inferior works.

    1. 1) Of course there's not. If your argument is that you shouldn't discuss a concept in fiction because some people might not care about it then I hate to break it to you but you can't talk about ANY aspect of fiction.

      2) See 1.

      3) "Optionally" is a poorly-chosen word. It suggests that people voluntarily *choose* which lessons they take and which they don't, when in reality it tends to be more of an emotional gut-check. And, also, you don't really need to remind me that there are "those who will find lessons from productions that [I] consider to be vastly inferior works", since the entire third point of this introductory article was that *that is a problem*, since those people end up with extremely bad ideas about real life based on stilted, unrealistic works of fiction.

  5. You forgot about the sense of emotion.

    1. Plus you weren't convincing enough, you weren't comprehensive enough and you barely touched on it. You should of gave comparisons and contrasts on every possibility.


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