Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Verisimilitude in Dystopias

by Deren Hansen

[The following is some of the material I'm going to cover in my presentation on Verisimilitude at Life, The Universe, and Everything (LTUE) 31, on Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 1:00 pm.]

"Truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, "was named Word of the Year for 2005 by the American Dialect Society and for 2006 by Merriam-Webster." (see Wikipedia)

I certainly enjoyed the humor of truthiness, but there's a perfectly good, albeit venerable, word who's original sense means the same thing: verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is "the state of quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of truth; probability; likelihood." (Webster 1886)

Having the appearance, but not the substance, of truth is generally not considered a good thing. Fiction, however, is an exception. When you're dealing in something that in absolute terms is a lie (because it never happened in the real world), verisimilitude is a virtue.

There is an art to giving readers enough of the appearance of truth in your story that they are willing to suspend their disbelief. Howard Tayler is fond of saying, "Explain the heck out of something small, then wave your hands over the big things." In other words, show your readers you know what you're talking about in one case and they're more likely to assume you also know what you're talking about in others.

More generally, verisimilitude depends upon patterns and precedents, not arbitrary assertions.

Consider, for example, the recent bumper crop of dystopian novels.The societies in which the stories take place tend to cluster around the ends of the spectrum between order and chaos. At one level, this clustering is simply classic extrapolation: taking an aspect of current society, amplifying it, and working out its ramifications. But at another level, we're in the midst of creating dystopian tropes and, soon, clich├ęs, because some authors commit a sin with their society that they would never commit with their antagonists: stereotying.

There's no room in modern literature for characters who are purely good or evil. Characters, at least the ones who ring true, are more complex. Indeed, the best villains sincerely believe they are the heroes of their own story and the fruit of their labors will be a better world.

So how do you avoid stereotypes, like a definitionally oppressive government, when developing your dystopian society?

Socrates set the precedent way back when, in The Republic, he suggested the way to understand personal virtue was to examine virtue on the scale of a state. In other words, approach your dystopian society just as you would an antagonist.

Just like good characters, societies need back stories that outline a plausible path to the present. People generally don't wake up one day and decide to be evil. Similarly, whole societies don't turn to oppression overnight. The good news is that a society showing the lengths to which reasonable people can go is far more frightening than one that's just bad because it's bad.

The proper study of how societies change over time keeps an army of sociologists, anthropologist, and historians busy. A short note like this doesn't begin to do justice to such a rich field of study. But one key to creating believable dystopian societies is to remember that there are always winners and losers: one person's dystopia is another's utopia. And the real engine of any society is the much larger group in the middle: people who are neither winners nor losers, but buy in to it because they believe they can be winners too one day.

[If you'd like more on this topic, you may be interested in my book on verisimilitude in writing.]

Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.

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