I’ve been seeing a small spate of individuals claiming that suspension of disbelief in the fantasy genre means that the setting must be seen as having a reasonable possibility of existing, or having once existed. Therefore, and this ties into “serious” fantasy discussed previously, a fantasy set in a wholly fictional world (as opposed to, say, Howard’s Hyperborea or Gaiman’s London Below, I suppose), breaks these people’s view of suspension of disbelief.
What does this mean for the fantasy genre?
Are the majority of fantasy settings poorly written because they violate this suspension?
No, I don’t think so. Rather, how we define suspension of disbelief for the fantasy genre differs from that of other genres. Certainly proximity to reality matters in suspending disbelief for a Tom Clancy, Michael Crighton, or Agatha Christie. But, this is not the case for fantasy.
For the fantasy genre, suspension of disbelief means that the setting and narrative make internally consistent sense. That is: magic follows certain rules, fantastic species follow their own rules, and characters act in a manner consistent with their personalities as we, the readers, understand them. Case in point, since it is currently topical, J.K.Rowling’s fantastic Earth. This world has certain rules that are always followed, but I’ll focus on two examples:
1) Magic. Rowling’s magic is subject to a variety of rules. It doesn’t matter whether Dumbledore, Sirius Black, or Harry is casting a spell, they are all subject to some key basic limitations, among them: magic cannot bring back the dead, magic cannot extend life without serious consequences or some sort of dependency, magic cannot make people fly without some sort of mechanical/bestial means (a broomstick or hippogriff, for instance; Voldemort later finds a way around this particular law, to everyone’s surprise).
2) Werewolves. Rowling’s werewolves are likewise subject to certain basic rules. This is something I’ve been working on, academically, for the last decade. When I last counted, there were at least a dozen rules governing werewolves in Rowling’s world from the limitation of forms (human and wolf, nothing in between, according to the books not the movies) to the effects of the wolfsbane potion.
All of these rules allow the audience to make sense of the world and see that the world makes internal sense on its own terms. Ironically, this in itself is difficult to believe since our own world rarely makes sense . . . as many authors have (supposedly) said, “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.”