The Importance of Verisimilitude

What is verisimilitude and why is it important within fiction?

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No matter which genre you wish to explore as a writer—be it historical fiction, modern contemporary, science fiction or even fantasy—you might be surprised to learn verisimilitude is a story’s must-have ingredient. In fact, most readers will recognise verisimilitude unconsciously; otherwise the compulsion to continue reading would evaporate entirely. That, of course, makes verisimilitude almost invisible to those not paying close enough attention—so what exactly is it?

Putting it simply, verisimilitude is about conveying an appearance of reality so that the reader can relate to it. It’s a literary technique—hard-wired into the very fabric of your story—which ensures your narrative takes on a likeness to truth compelling enough for the reader to find it identifiable. Of course, that’s not to say it has to have a spot-on resemblance to real life, but if writers deploy verisimilitude it can certainly help to keep it believable to some degree. But this begs the question: how does verisimilitude differ from realism?

For example, what if you’re writing a story about aliens invading the moons of Jupiter, and a dashing one-eyed fighter pilot has to rescue some bug-eyed bespectacled creature from being thrown into a black hole? Or what if you’ve invented your own fantasy world in which a noble king enlists all practitioners of magic to encircle his kingdom with a magical force-field to protect his subjects from a horde of dragons? How on earth is it possible for a reader to associate ‘real life’ with such outlandish tales as those?

There’s an easy way to answer this. Basically, it doesn’t really matter how far-fetched a story is. Verisimilitude isn’t about restricting writers to the rigid rules of literary realism. All verisimilitude should do is ensure there is something in your story which a reader can find relatable in some way—a good writer should always make an effort (through a character and their emotions or motivations, the setting and its geography, etc.) to ground their story in just enough credibility that the reader can suspend their sense of disbelief, hopefully to a point approaching enjoyment.

For example, J.K. Rowling may well have been writing about a school full of witches and wizards, but it’s the fact that it so closely resembles a boarding school experience—with all the homework, classroom bullying and exam conditions that comes along with it—which makes the reader recall their own school years. That’s verisimilitude in action. You could even use Harry Potter himself as an example too—following the death of his parents, we can automatically empathise with Harry’s struggles to find his way in the world. The fact that Harry’s parents were killed by an all-powerful Dark Lord is somewhat irrelevant—it’s ultimately the fall-out of bereavement (an issue we can all relate to) which makes us identify with the character.

Techno-thrillers, for instance, also tend to use verisimilitude very well. In Jurassic Park you could almost fool yourself into believing Michael Crichton’s explanation for how to clone dinosaurs was actual scientific truth. Then there are stories which use ‘false documents’ to blur the line between fact and fiction—a gimmick which speculative fiction authors often resort to—as another effective method of creating verisimilitude by giving the illusion of authenticity. And, of course, satires, such as political satire, rely on verisimilitude to make humorous observations people can commonly recognise as amusing, by virtue of the fact that they’re also in on the joke.

Unsurprisingly, verisimilitude has been around for thousands of years. Originating from ‘mimesis’—a form of dramatic theory dating back to the time of Plato and Aristotle—it has a longstanding history in the development of human storytelling. Bear in mind, higher levels of literacy are a relatively new historical phenomenon, so in the past people tended to enjoy stories through the oral tradition, or by watching theatre performances. For this very reason, historically, it was even more important that people were entertained, first and foremost.

Entertainment, however, takes on many imaginative forms, hence why so many myths contained fantastical creatures and supernatural powers. Where verisimilitude comes in, however, is in people’s accompanying expectations for stories to have a truthful quality, either in a story’s moral message, its themes, or in the way its characters behave, or in the things those characters experience. The plausibility of a story, therefore, was more informed by a story’s internal logic than by its premise.

With this explanation in mind, it should be obvious that verisimilitude still has a crucial role to play in fiction writing. Every writer owes it to themselves to sense-check everything they write so that even the most outlandish stories contains a semblance of truth, at least so it remains credible in the eyes of your reader to some extent. After all, if a writer fails at doing that, then there’s a risk your work won’t resonate at all with your audience, and no writer wants that, do they?

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Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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