Willing Suspension of Disbelief

21Jun11

All fiction demands that its readers are willing to suspend their disbelief and accept whatever goes on in its pages for as long as they are reading it. Even the grittiest of gritty realistic fiction still deviates from reality in some ways. Romance novels happily inhabit their own world which is different from the real one in a LOT of ways. There are always enough billionaires to go round, for a start.

I think I’m generally very willing to suspend my disbelief about most things in fiction. I don’t notice the kind of continuity issues that really wind some people up and I’m prepared to let almost anything go, especially if the author has constructed an internally consistent, plausible reality.

So I was quite surprised at the weekend to discover a romance that I just couldn’t believe in. I liked the characters, I liked the idea of the book, I liked the voice and the style. I just couldn’t bring myself to believe one crucial thing about the hero and for me that ruined my pleasure in the whole book.

The book was ‘Mistress on Trial/Strictly Legal’ (US/UK titles) by Kate Hardy. The hero is a criminal barrister who is supposed to be very good at his job. I am not a lawyer, but I have a couple of good friends who are and I think they would laugh this guy out of court. The main sticking point for me was when the lawyer said he wouldn’t defend someone who was guilty, because:

1. Barristers don’t get to decide who is guilty; courts do that.
2. Everyone in the UK is entitled to adequate legal representation in court.
3. The legal system doesn’t work if barristers pick and choose who they are willing to defend. Barristers have to work within the system. If you think the system is wrong, become a politician and change it.
4. Even if your client tells you they did do something, it’s not your job as a barrister to decide what that was. It’s your job in court to present the strongest case for the defence so that the jury can decide what, if anything, they can be proved guilty of beyond reasonable doubt. Maybe it was murder, or maybe it was manslaughter. Maybe there were mitigating circumstances that should be taken into account in the sentencing.

So I can’t bring myself to believe that someone who so fundamentally doesn’t get what the job of a barrister is can be one. I also struggled a lot with the idea that the kind of woman you marry can make any difference whatsoever to a legal career these days.

It was interesting to me how strongly I reacted against this, because as I say I’m normally willing to let most things go. What about you? Do you easily suspend your disbelief? What are the things that you just can’t let go?



6 Responses to “Willing Suspension of Disbelief”

  1. I’m willing to grant a writer a fair amount of leeway in creating her/his own “world,” especially when the characters act in believable ways. But at a certain point, if you’re setting your book in our world, whether past or present, you run up against hard limits of reality.

    Your previous review would be one example. Why use two aristocratic men in historical menage? The inheritance issue can’t just be swept under the rug (plus can they live under the radar? 3 ordinary people in a cottage somewhere seems more plausible.

    In this example, it seems like the throw-away line is meant to make the hero more sympathetic. Defenders are sometimes seen (here, at least) as “on the bad guy’s side,” as if defense weren’t vital to a JUSTICE system (and, you know, as if innocent people were never accused). To me that makes it more annoying. It’s not a mistake, it’s like a wilfull manipulation of reality that isn’t needed to make this guy upright. Or else either the character or the author fails to understand the basics of the legal system,or thinks guilty people don’t deserve/need a strong defense in which case both have lost my sympathy.

    So I guess my point is that an author has to give me a REALLY good reason to ignore important things I know about the real world. Little things but me much less.

    • 2 Ros

      Oh, good point about the historical menage. In the lawyer story it irritated me even more because it actually diminished the potential conflict. The heroine had been wrongly accused, tried and found guilty in her past life. She was absolutely determined to get ‘justice’ for the guy who set her up. So if he had said that yes, he would be prepared to do his job and defend even that guy, then there would have been real conflict between them with potential for really interesting character development and resolution.

  2. I used to be a lawyer, although I never practiced criminal law. (I have a brother-in-law who’s a criminal defense barrister; I’ll have to remember to ask him.)

    But here’s my blunt reaction on the question of any criminal attorney who says he can’t represent anyone he knows is guilty: it depends on what “knowledge” is in this context. The simple answer — and I know real life lawyers do this — is you don’t ask your client if he or she “did it.” No matter what the answer is — he did or he didn’t — and no matter the veracity of his answer — she REALLY did or she REALLY didn’t — the barrister’s job remains the same. Clients like to believe that their innocence will make the barrister’s job easier, but it doesn’t.

    Now, I haven’t read this particular book, and the guy sounds stupid, which is my major pet peeve about books with supposedly smart characters — we’re told they’re smart more than we ever see them being smart — but I’m willing to give the guy a pass on that one statement. A genuinely smart lawyer might say that and mean it wholeheartedly because in his mind, all his clients are innocent. That could sound naive or arrogant, but with the job the lawyer has to do, it could be easier just to think that. If a client said she’d done it, he’d choose to believe she was lying or mistaken.

    Plus, there are some fairly subtle ways that people who “did it” are still innocent (in the “not guilty” sense): self-defense, defense of others, or mental defect.

    Or this particular lawyer knows he can’t provide the “zealous advocacy” the law requires if he knows the client is guilty, which gets us back to the “don’t ask” step.

    Anyway, it’s not cut-and-dried for me. But then I used to be a lawyer. Very few things are cut-and-dried after you’ve been to law school. :-)

    • 4 Ros

      I suspect that you would not be inclined to let that one comment go in context. It was not the sort of subtle discussion of issues that you have here in this comment (and that I’ve had with other lawyer friends).

  3. I wish my disbelief was a bit more easily suspended, because I’d enjoy more books that way, but alas, my disbelief is a bit like a large and badly balanced chandelier that comes crashing down and spoils the party for everyone.

    In particular, I wish I wasn’t so snobbish about people getting titles wrong in historicals, but I grew up on Georgette Heyer and I just can’t help it. When someone’s Lady Pomona in one chapter and Lady Appletree in the next, I get confused and start flipping back pages wondering whether I’d missed a surprise wedding.

    I don’t get as wound up as some people do about details of architecture or plants – if I run across flowering cherry trees in Scotland in December, for example, I tend to think ‘Well, other people know a lot more than me about gardening’ and I only notice out-of-period dialogue if it’s really out-of-period – I’d be annoyed if characters in a romance set in the 1530s were talking about Freud, for example, but I wouldn’t notice there was anything wrong if they were talking about John Knox.

    In a way, I think it’s a compliment to romances that I’m so picky – if I was just flicking through them idly I’d probably be OK with the setting or the characters not making sense, but I really immerse myself in reading them, so the off-notes jar more. And a really good writer can make me read on past anything.

    • 6 Ros

      There was a moment in The Debutante’s Dilemma when someone experienced an ‘electric thrill’ which instantly sent me googling. Short answer: yes, the term was in use by then but I still don’t believe the sensation of an electric shock was sufficiently well known that the term was being used metaphorically.

      I am totally with you on the need to get titles right.



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