Surround the Unbelievable with the Believable Using Social Norms


Surround the Unbelievable with the Believable Using Social Norms

Making Make-Believe Believable: Your setting may take place on another planet; your characters may be fighting a race of alien wizards; but you can surround the unbelievable with the believable by making your characters react the way normal people react. (Note: this is actually called “good writing.”)

If you are new to this blog, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”

For the next week or so, we will be concentrating on the first technique for helping your reader suspend disbelief: Surround the Unbelievable with the Believable. Here are a few examples of methods we can use:

Today, we will focus on the social norm example.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to take several mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Ecuador with my church youth group. We did not visit the resort areas of these nations. We visited the poverty-stricken areas where we helped build churches and eye clinics and worked with the children. Visiting a third world nation, especially as an American high school student, was like visiting a world that very well could have been a fantasy world. No one spoke our language. Garbage lined the streets. Malnourished two-year-olds ran about with bowlegs and dysentery. All the buildings were unfinished. I believe a few times, one of us said, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

One thing I noticed, however, that all of the teenagers in my youth group still acted like teenagers. We teased each other and played sports. Teenage drama often erupted. Boys flirted with girls and vice versa. We were in a foreign setting, but we still behaved like normal humans.

You characters should behave like normal humans, and using social norms and social settings that your readers are familiar with will help surround the unbelievable with the believable.

Let’s look at two examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling:

  • The Great Hall at Hogwarts: The Hogwarts Great hall has an enchanted ceiling, a gothic interior, and food that appears magically. Sounds pretty unbelievable, doesn’t it? However, the Great Hall, is just a normal school cafeteria with fantasy window dressing. Students sit around tables chatting with each other and sometimes fighting with each other—or just ignoring each other. The Great Hall feels familiar because it falls within social norms that many of us are used to. If you went to school, you ate in a cafeteria. You know what it’s like to try to grab a seat with your friends. You’ve experienced the feeling of nervousness on your first day of school when you don’t know where to sit or who to sit with. You understand what it’s like to see your worst enemy a few tables away. A cafeteria feels normal, it’s socially believable, and it’s something that we can relate to. The unbelievable parts of Hogwarts are surrounded by the social norm of a school cafeteria—even with Dumbledore presiding as headmaster.
  • The Teenage Angst at Hogwarts: The Hogwarts students get to practice magic and fly on brooms, but take all that away, and they are regular teenagers. They experience teenage problems and drama. Bullies roam the halls. Yes, Harry saving the world from Voldemort’s return is the main storyline, and yes, it is quite unbelievable. However, Rowling adds in believable conflict that normal teenagers experience.

A few things to consider:

  • Use mainstream sub-conflicts: Consider using real world sub-conflicts as a means of surrounding the unbelievable with the believable. Two men in an argument over a woman is a conflict that transcends genres.
  • Make your humans behave like humans: This means you need to study human behavior, but we’ll cover this later.
  • Remember that food and eating are keys to human survival and bonding: Some of your greatest character development scenes might take place over a meal.
  • War-torn environments and other difficult situations may cause your characters to behave differently than what most Americans believe is normal. Don’t change anything, but make sure to explain your character’s behavior. No one questions why Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games behaves the way she does. She has endured trauma that most of us could not imagine, and if she acted like a child from the twenty-first century, we wouldn’t buy into her.

What to take from this: If your reader feels as though your characters aren’t behaving the way humans behave, he might stop reading. Surrounding your unbelievable elements within a believable social network will help the reader continue suspending disbelief.

Mainstream Writers: Hopefully, this will seem like second nature to you. However, if your story feels flat, you might need to create some sub-conflicts and make sure your characters are behaving in a believable manner. Also, you may have a character that comes from a different environment than the rest of your characters. Make sure to explain to the reader why his or her behavior is different.

Speculative Writers: Remember that no matter what unbelievable setting your characters find themselves in, you can surround the unbelievable with the believable by putting your characters in situations we might consider normal and by making sure your characters show similar behavior patterns to the mainstream world. The exception occurs when your character is in or has come from a vastly different environment.

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at


About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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