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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Superman and the Suspension of Disbelief

As genre authors, one of the most complicated things that we demand of our readers is the suspension of disbelief. Whether you are writing a outlandish mystery, a sci-fi opera, a paranormal dystopia or any other world where you are messing with the laws of plausibility or reality, suspension of disbelief is necessary for readers to buy into your story.

But the cost cannot outweigh the perceived benefit. Asking a reader to stop believing what they know to be true -- that no heist can be so complicated and run so smoothly, that no man can dodge all those bullets, that aliens probably wouldn't be following over themselves in lust with humans, that society simply doesn't lose its sense of entitlement to self that easily, that vampires don't exist and they certainly don't sparkle -- and to buy into your world is an action that costs the reader something. To stop believing what we know is real and invest in your world and your story, we the reader need to know that our forfeiture is going to pay out in a story that is worth it.

That is why I believe, no matter how fantastic your story is, you need to limit the price you're asking of your reader.

Let me ask you: why does nobody recognize that Clark Kent is Superman?



I'm gonna lose some of you here, particularly those of you who may not be comic book fans. Because let's face it: Siegel and Shuster are asking a lot. We're to believe that nobody recognizes Clark is Superman because of a pair of glasses? Even when he's surrounded everyday by investigative journalists, including the Pulitzer prize winning Lois Lane? Why do we buy it, and why do so many people love Superman so much?

Looking at the history of Superman, it's clear that this is an issue that has caused Superman's DC handlers a few headaches along the way. They have, on a few occasions, attempted to explain why no one recognizes Clark Kent. Explanations have ranged from the mundane -- Clark studied acting in order to perfect his Kent/Superman and make them unrecognizable -- to the absurd, such as Superman robots.* The most ridiculous explanation that the reading public was asked to consider, though, has to be the hypnotic glasses. The gist is that Clark's glasses are made from glass from the spaceship he arrived in, and that the material was imbued with the ability to cast a low level of hypnosis on the people around him. Since Superman is trying to project Clark Kent the hypnotized people believe he is Clark Kent.

Are you laughing yet? I hope so. Because the explanation for why people don't recognize the Clark and Superman are the same person is so much more simple than all of that.

They don't recognize it because they aren't written to. It's simple, isn't it? And as readers, we accept this because we know that nobody recognizes Clark Kent. Despite what we see on the page, in that written world simply nobody can tell. Those are the laws of the universe, and so long as they are consistent, the cost of buying in is low. We can believe it.

The issue arises when the laws are not consistent, and any comic reader can tell you that consistency is not the strong point of comic books. DC's attempts at explaining why nobody recognizes Clark are never endearing to the reader. Rather, they work to point out flaws that readers would otherwise to be happy to accept as not existing. The act of explanation simply implies that there needs to be an explanation. And as soon as we are told that there needs to be an explanation, all explanations are insufficient -- hypno-glasses and robots are ridiculous. And the mundane explanations? They simply don't hold water. Superman is megastar famous. Can you imagine not being able to recognize, say, Brad Pitt because he had on a pair of glasses? And then there's the added issue that, when there's some sense of explanation hanging in the air, as soon as anybody can see through the disguise, it must be argued that somebody else can see through it.** And then the whole thing falls apart.

If the author wrote a story where people simply don't recognize that Superman/Clark Kent are one and the same, the the readers would accept this. People in this world simply can't tell that they're the same. That's the rule. Superman's identity would only be revealed because 1- He tells or 2- Something exceptional happens that uncovers him.***

That is how you walk the line of disbelief in your storytelling. You must create a world that, even if it doesn't follow our rules of reality, follows its own. Don't get caught up trying to explain fantastic elements to make them fit our world. Just make them fit their own world.

Superman gets away with being inconsistent, because when writers mess him up people just shrug it off as bad writing but continue to believe in Superman. Because Superman has a core mythology that people have bought into and understand. And Clark Kent's glasses are a part of it. You and your characters might get there someday -- but even then, wouldn't it be a better written world if the Superman that was delivered to us was always the Superman we know him to be?


* Mainstream? Perhaps. Still, my least favorite Superman thing and one I choose to leave out of my understanding of the Superman mythology.

** This issue is not unique to Superman. Robin #3, Tim Drake, figures out Batman's identity, which of course prompts the question: if a kid could do it, why can't everyone figure out that the Bruce Wayne is the caped crusader?

*** I personally choose to accept Batgod Batman as an exceptional happening.

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