Plausibility Revisited

Wha Hoppen and What Didn't

Ursula K. Le Guin

In fiction, the story is not what happened. Fiction didn't happen. What happened doesn't matter to fiction, and history or fact can't validate or invalidate it. "I saw this" or "I experienced this" is a statement which can justify a memoir or journalistic writing, but has no relevance to fiction.

What validates fiction is plausibility, which it creates for itself, most notably through accurate, honest observation of the world it creates. This created world is of course more or less directly related to and dependent on the actual, factual world outside the book. Most modern fiction doesn't contradict fact, and the novel particularly tends to be vividly factual (and therefore of immense use to historians — for example, the accurate and honest social observation of English middle-class households in Jane Austen's novels.) Such a close correspondence of the real world and the fictional world is a defining characteristic of realism. It is not a defining characteristic of fiction.


Fiction is what didn't happen, but realistic fiction pretends that it did. Realism uses actuality and history, inserting invented characters in amongst real people and places — a non-existent Prince Andrey at the historic Battle of Borodino, a fake Huck on a real river. It supports its pretense by telling stories that might have happened with characters that might have existed. Huck and Jim, or Andrey and Natasha, are plausible — they meet the reader's expectation of what actual people, actual lives are like, or were like. Plausibility, based on accurate, honest observation and intuition of reality, is the chief means the realistic story uses to win the reader to collude happily in this pretense of factual report. Science fiction is a branch of realism. Some science fiction invents the past: in Philip Dick's Man in the High Castle Germany and Japan won the second world war. Here the fiction deliberately and blatantly contradicts history (something that realistic fiction does only surreptitiously, mostly by fudging.)

Most science fiction pretends that the future is the present or the past, and then tells us what happened in it. Why? Because "the future" is a blank page, and the imagination can write anything it likes on it — extrapolating from present trends or not. Unless it is in the satirical mode, science fiction tends to avoid the actual present time. A story about the immediate contemporary world is read with high expectations of factuality, and blatant contradiction of fact, if not satirical, will be taken as nonsense.

In general, science fiction proceeds just as realistic fiction does, meeting conventional expectations of how people generally act, and either avoiding events that will strike the reader as improbable, or plausibly explaining them. Realism and science fiction both employ plausibility to win the reader's consent to the fiction.

It's often said that science fiction is the modern mythology. In the case of the rare science-fictional creation with archetypal power, such as Shelley's Frankenstein, this becomes an arguable statement, but in general I think it's meaningless. Myth, legend, and folktale are ancestral to, not forms of, modern fiction. Elements of myth and legend may be used consciously or unconsciously by fiction-writers, but we don't write myths. The nearest we come to it is fantasy.

Fantasy is far more direct in its fictionality than either realism or science fiction. Its contract with the reader is a different one. There is no agreement to pretend that its story happened, might have happened, or might ever happen. Its invention is radical. With the informed consent of the reader, fantasy deliberately violates plausibility in the sense of congruence with the world outside the story. Only in lesser matters is realistic detail used to ground the story, to prevent the reader from getting an overload of the improbable. Behavior of human characters in fantasy generally meets conventional expectation; but the characters in fantasy may not be human, or may relate to nonhuman beings in unexpected ways. What constitutes plausibility in fantasy is the coherence of the story, its consistent self-reference.

The invention must not contradict itself. The "secondary creation," as Tolkien called it, must be entire and self-consistent. Imaginative authority and inner coherence are fantasy's chief means of obtaining its end, which is the reader's willing participation in an undisguised invention.

Fantasy is shamelessly fictive. Some people feel it's wicked to invent something God didn't think of. Others see it as a waste of time. And to others, fantasy is an exercise of what may be our most divine and certainly is our most human capacity, the imagination.

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Updated Sunday, 26-Feb-2017 17:28:50 PST