What makes a piece of fiction effective? There are many ways to answer this, but verisimilitude, or believability, tends to count for a lot.
Even in science fiction and fantasy, an author needs to be able to create a world that seems plausible to its readers. This doesn’t always mean that there aren’t magical or supernatural elements, but that the elements in the story fit together in a way that makes sense.
It may be a tricky word to say, but verisimilitude is a simple concept in practice. Here’s what to know about it, including a quick verisimilitude definition and some of our favorite examples of verisimilitude in books and film.
What is Verisimilitude?
Verisimilitude refers to the quality of realism in fiction writing. It applies to the characters, situations, and settings that the author has created and is an important part of world building and narrative continuity. The word comes from the Latin “verum” (truth) and “similis” (similar), with conceptual roots in Greek drama and Italian heroic poetry.
In many cases, verisimilitude may not be something that you even pay attention to unless it’s lacking. A story without believability is hard to stay invested in, and it can be a frustrating experience to find yourself constantly distracted by unrealistic details. Likewise, if you’re doing the writing, it’s your job to ensure verisimilitude, and it’s something that you should be on constant lookout for as you work on your piece.
What Are the Types of Verisimilitude?
There are two types of verisimilitude: cultural and generic.
- Cultural verisimilitude is believability within the context of the real world (i.e., our world)
- Generic verisimilitude is believability within the context of a fictional world (i.e., the characters’ world)
Some genres of fiction, such as magical realism, will have elements of both. Others will fall firmly into one camp or the other. In either case, the goal is to set and maintain a standard of realism that all details within the story adhere to.
What Is the Difference Between Realism and Verisimilitude?
Realism is what’s actually real, while verisimilitude is the appearance of reality. Put another way, realism exists outside of fiction, since it’s the rules, laws, and concepts that govern our actual universe. Verisimilitude, on the other hand, exists only in fiction. It’s the likelihood that what we’re reading or seeing could actually happen, were it to occur in either our universe or the universe set out by the author.
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Verisimilitude in Literature and Film
Looking at examples of verisimilitude is a good way to get a feel for how it actually functions. And fortunately, there are many examples to reference, particularly in popular books and movies.
Verisimilitude Examples in Literature
Verisimilitude is an essential literary device in everything from sci-fi to poetry and should be present in dialogue, character interactions, setting, and plot. Again, these elements can be true to the real world or to the fictional world created by the author, but they must stay consistent based on the rules that are established.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s characters in The Grapes of Wrath exist within the social constructs and confines of the Great Depression. The lives of migrant farmers and their families, as well as the descriptions of poverty, all ring true to what we know about this period—sometimes to a painful degree. It’s so realistic that to this day, the novel is often used to teach about the Great Depression, and Steinbeck won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award based on this strength.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Realism probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Dracula, but Stoker’s Gothic horror novel is a master class in weaving together cultural and generic verisimilitude. Count Dracula is an obviously fantastical character, but he exists in an otherwise true-to-form depiction of Victorian England. It’s this juxtaposition that makes the book especially scary, since Dracula’s evil actions impact people who, at the time, readers would have seen as being just like themselves.
Verisimilitude Examples in Film
As in literature, verisimilitude is key to a successful film, and it’s hard (if not impossible) to make a strong audience connection without it. Even when characters act in ways that the audience might not agree with, the overall effect must still be one of plausibility, and everything must make sense as part of the larger story.
This epic film is only loosely based on real life, but while the events didn’t unfold as the story tells them, they certainly could have. Gladiator puts forth accurate depictions of things that actually happened (the Battle of the Danube, for example, and the Roman gladiator pits), as well as people who really existed (such as Commodus and Marcus Aurelius). In areas where it deviates from what we know, it does so in a way that stays true to the times and the setting, and that makes sense in the context of the film.
Could a couple of brilliant scientists clone dinosaurs based on ancient DNA and our current technological capabilities? No. But could they do it within the laws of science set out in Jurassic Park? Absolutely. The movie, based on Michael Crichton’s novel, is rich in verisimilitude. And though the premise itself is unlikely, as audience members, we are free from doubt as we watch the events unfold. This speaks to the quality of the world-building and the attention to pseudo-scientific detail, and ultimately makes for a film that’s a lot more fun than it might have been if there wasn’t so much effort put into making the impossible seem possible.
How to Incorporate Verisimilitude Into Your Writing
When creating fiction, you should always be aiming for verisimilitude, both in the big picture and in the smallest of details. Here are some ways to make it happen.
- Set out clear rules. Be definitive in the rules that you base your fictional world around. It’s okay if realism in your story means the sun rises in the west and sets in the east instead of the other way around, but for the sake of ongoing plausibility, you’ll need to make that clear to your audience and stick with it throughout your story.
- Give a lot of detail. Details lend depth and realism to situations. Use sensory details when describing settings (not just sights but smells, sounds, etc.), and include expository details that help round out the realism of your characters (for example, have a character say “excuse me” after accidentally bumping into someone, instead of just going on their way).
- Fact check. If you’re not sure if something is true to reality, take the time to verify instead of just assuming it will work out. This is good practice for both cultural and generic verisimilitude and a necessary task for making sure that you stay consistent in your approach.
The next time you’re engaging with a work of fiction, try to pinpoint the various elements that connote realism. You’ll get a better feel for what makes for an impactful story, plus pick up some pointers that you can use to create verisimilitude in your own work.
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